Post-Game Analysis: Minnesota
by Jonathan Hodges


Northwestern needed to respond after last week's disappointment, and that they did as the Wildcats (7-2, 3-2) defeated Minnesota (7-2, 3-2) to spoil the Gophers' homecoming and win in Minneapolis for the first time since 2000 with a final score of 24-17.  The 'Cats all but secured a bowl berth as they were led by backup QB Mike Kafka, starting in place of the injured CJ Bacher, as he ran for 217 yards on 27 carries and went 12-16 passing for 143 yards and 2 TDs.  It was S Brendan Smith who sealed up the win, though, returning an INT (NU's only takeaway on the day) 48 yards for the winning touchdown with 12 ticks left on the clock.  Overall, it was an entire team effort for NU as the offense carried up its end of the bargain (going up 10-0 in the first quarter, the most points NU has scored in the first period this year) as they put 17 on the board to match Minnesota's total.  And the D took care of business, allowing only 10 points (Minnesota scored 7 off of an interception return) ans scoring 7 of their own: the aforementioned Smith go-ahead TD return.

Without a doubt, NU overcame a lot of adversity to win this football game.  Sutton went down for the season (he had wrist surgery earlier in the week), Arrington had previously gone down with a season-ending knee injury, and CJ Bacher was held out for the Minnesota game with a hamstring pull.  DE Browne went down with an apparent knee injury early in the game and did not return (his status is unknown) and DE Wootton went down with a leg issue (but did return to finish out the game).  Despite all that, the D responded in a big way, containing the Gopher offensive attack, and the offense did a stellar job of moving the ball without its 2 biggest playmakers.  The win also propels NU right back into the mix for a higher bowl berth, as the 'Cats sit behind only PSU, OSU (who NU plays next week), and MSU in the Big Ten standings.

The story of the game is the performance of backup QB Kafka who ran draw after draw and used his feet to lead NU to victory.  He set a single-game rushing record for the 'Cats with 217 yards on 27 carries (that number includes 2 sacks for -16 yards), smashing the previous record of 115 by Zak Kustok by over 100 yards.  And he found the end zone twice throwing the ball: on the first drive of the game he hit Ebert on a perfect 36 yard strike, and in the second quarter hit a wide open Rooks in the end zone after setting up 1st and goal after a long run of his own.  While he did throw 2 INTs (one returned for a TD), he came back from both of them and showed quite a bit of poise as he just kept on running and picking up first downs and making things happen.  While I expected to see a lot of running out of Kafka, I must say that he exceeded my expectations by leaps and bounds as he took NU on his back and drove down the field time after time.

On defense, NU took care of business, limiting Minnesota to just 10 offensive points and getting great tackling across the board.  The performance of this unit epitomized the "bend but don't break" mentality as the Wildcats allowed 395 offensive yards but only the two previously mentioned scores.  Minnesota also missed a very short FG and NU stopped them as they went for it on 4th down with a fake FG try.  And, of course, that Smith interception and return to seal the game gave NU the final hurrah.

NU special teams were also a boon for the 'Cats in the win, as Villarreal took over kickoff duties and did an excellent job in conjunction with the kickoff coverage team: he averaged 67.4 yards/kickoff with 1 touchback on 5 kicks, and Minnesota's best starting position after the kick was at the 21 yard line: NU tackled them inside the 20 on 3 occasions.  The punting game was also good for the 'Cats as they held the Gophers deep in their own end: Demos had 6 punts with a 42.8 yard/punt average, with 3 inside the 20 and one touchback that should have been downed inside the 20 with multiple Wildcats in the vicinity before the ball bounced into the end zone.  Simmons did a respectable job on kickoff returns (3 for 68 yards), but the real boon for NU was sticking Minnesota deep in their own end and making them drive the length of the field: and the results showed in the final score.

Overall, it was indeed a team effort as the Wildcats truly did respond for a huge road win, and now NU is all but guaranteed a bowl berth and has put themselves in the "upper middle class" of the conference.  A lot of credit goes to Kafka and Smith, the big playmakers of the game, but many NU players got in on the act with injuries forcing backups into action.  Next up is, of course, Ohio State, which now looks to be a big matchup in Evanston this coming Saturday.

Player of the Game: Northwestern QB Mike Kafka (12 of 16 passing for 143 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs; 27 carries for 217 yards)  As mentioned earlier, backup QB Kafka took NU on his back and carried them down the field, running draw play after draw play as he shattered the previous NU record for rushing yards by a QB.  Although he did throw two interceptions, he more than made up for that with his performance the rest of the way.  Not even the biggest Wildcat fans expected to see what they did out of Kafka, so credit him for a job well done.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions:
- S Brendan Smith (6 tackles, 5 solo, 1 interception returned 48 yards for a TD) Smith made a huge play right when NU needed it, grabbing NU's first takeaway of the day (and first in over 7 quarters of play) and returning it for the game-winning TD.  He had a lot of help with blockers downfield, but credit him for never going down and taking it to the house with just 12 seconds left on the game clock.
- DE Corey Wootton (1 tackle, 1 sack for -11 yards)  His stats don't show it, but Wootton created havoc in the backfield by moving the pocket backwards and forcing throws or scrambling from Weber.  He came out of the game at one point but got back onto the field to finish the game.
- LB Nate Williams (8 tackles, 1 sack for -11 yards)  In just the second start of his young career, Williams tied for the lead in tackles with 8, including a nice sack of Weber deep in Gopher territory.  NU has needed him to step up to make up for the loss of Arrington, and he has done just that.
- S/LB Brad Phillips (7 tackles, 5 solo, 1 TFL for -3 yards)  In a bit of a new role as a hybrid safety/linebacker, Phillips continued in his hard-hitting ways, making key open-field tackles and helping to contain the Minnesota offense.
- P Stefan Demos (6 punts, 42.8 yards/punt, 3 inside 20)  As mentioned earlier, Demos did an excellent job punting, and would have had 4 of his 6 punts inside the 20 if the NU players wouldn't have let the ball bounce by them into the end zone.  His punts were key in making Minnesota traverse the entire field to get into scoring range - which really showed in the 10 points allowed by the NU defense.
- K Amado Villarreal (3/3 XPs, 1/2 FGs, 5 kickoffs for 67.4 yards/kickoff, 1 touchback, 3 ending inside the 20)  Although Amado missed a long FG (a 47 yarder), he excelled on kickoffs after being shifted over to those duties (Demos had been handling kickoffs to this point in the season).  Minnesota's best field position after a kickoff was the 21 yard line as Amado's deep and high kicks allowed the NU kick cover team to get downfield and make the tackle.

What to Work On:
- Running Game: Conteh had 12 carries for 12 yards.  Obviously, Kafka stole the show and put up good total rushing numbers for the 'Cats, but on traditional run plays, the NU offense was stonewalled.  Most of Kafka's runs were on draw plays which allowed the offensive line to drop back into pass blocking while Kafka waited for a hole to open up.  While it was great to see the Northwestern offense take what the defense was giving, against OSU's very strong defense next week, the run blocking must get shored up.
- Get Healthy:  Obviously, injuries are not something that can be easily controlled, and while it was great to see the backups make some big plays to propel NU to a win this week, the 'Cats must take the chance to heal up during this coming week.  During the game, DE Browne and RT Taylor went down with what looked to be significant injuries; one hopes that they can return shortly.  And then there's CJ, who remains as NU's most proficent passer, and can hopefully return from his hamstring injury in short order.

Random Observations:
- Running QB in the spread offense:  As I've been harping on all season long, a QB with good running skills can excel in a spread offense.  The ability to go with an empty backfield but retain a running threat is huge, and Kafka definitely showed that against the Gophers, as he torched them for 217 total rushing yards (discounting the two sacks, 233 yards).  Hopefully, this is something that NU can utilize for the rest of the season.
- Lack of production from running backs:  Combining the numbers from both squads, the RBs totaled 27 yards on 21 carries (1.3 yards/carry), while the QBs totaled 270 yards on 43 carries (6.3 yards/carry).  Talk about a disparity: both teams completely stopped each other's running backs while letting the QBs roam free (although 80% of those QB rushing yards came from Kafka).
- Big Ten Bowl Picture: NU solidified its position in a bowl by grabbing that 7th win.  Michigan is officially out of a bowl (for the first time since Big Ten teams were allowed to go to bowls other than the Rose Bowl in 1974), as the Wolverines picked up their 7th loss of the year (their first losing season since 1966).  Indiana picked up its 6th loss of the year and Purdue also has 6 losses (NU will usurp them in the bowl pecking order even if they win out, which isn't likely).  Wisconsin also put itself in a tough spot, dropping its 5th game of the year at MSU.  Iowa and Illinois both stand at 5-4 with tough dates left on the schedule.  So, that leaves the 'Cats fighting for anywhere from the Outback Bowl down to the Insight Bowl; if the 'Cats pick up one more win this year they will likely stay out of Detroit.  Remember that teams with a winning record (7 wins or more) must be selected over .500 teams (6-6 records), and if a team has 2 more wins than another, the team with the worse record cannot jump the other for a bowl bid.

Final Thought:

The win for Northwestern over Minnesota was huge as the 'Cats solidified their bowl hopes, jumped back into the upper tier of the conference standings, and boosted confidence in this team after a highly disappointing loss last Saturday.  While there have been losses due to injury, a ton of backups and young players have stepped up to make things happen and will be counted upon the rest of the way to continue that trend.  Next week presents a huge matchup in Evanston as Ohio State comes to town, and 'Cats fans should be excited to root on NU in what should be a matchup of two ranked teams.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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