Northwestern (2-2, 0-1) has now lost consecutive games for the first time since 2007 after falling to Minnesota (3-1, 1-0) by a final score of 35-24 in the Big Ten opener for both teams.
Although NU QB Mike Kafka once again had a big passing day (32-of-47 for 309 yards passing, 2 TDs, and 1 INT), the Wildcats couldn't hold back the Gophers at the end of the day, ceding two fourth-quarter touchdowns to Minnesota allowing them to secure the victory.
The 'Cats got off to a slow start once again, allowing Minnesota to find paydirt on the opening drive of the game, putting NU in an early 7-0 hole. Northwestern's subsequent drive went 85 yards and took over eight minutes off the clock. But a holding call on a play that would have set NU up for first and goal inside the 10-yard line kept the 'Cats to a field goal.
The Gophers racked up their second rushing TD of the day in the second quarter, although NU was able to answer with a touchdown of their own thanks to some nice scampering from RB Arby Fields. The 'Cats had a shot to take a halftime lead, but a red zone interception kept NU from adding another first half score.
Once again, Minnesota struck first in the second half with an Eric Decker receiving TD, although NU owned the rest of the third quarter, scoring touchdowns on its next two drives of the quarter to take their first lead of the game.
The highlight play of the day for Northwestern came on fourth and one deep in Minnesota territory, whernthe 'Cats went for it and Kafka threw a TD pass to superback Brendan Mitchell who hauled in the pass and managed to stay in-bounds at the edge of the endzone.
But, Minnesota hunkered down and used its running game and passes to tight end Nick Tow-Arnett to drive methodically down the field and score the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. The Gophers ended the day with 166 rushing yards, good for four yards per carry, approximately double their rushing yards per game average through the first three weeks.
The Wildcats had their shots at taking the lead again, but could never come through. On the ensuing drive, Kafka had WR Sidney Stewart wide open and streaking down the middle of the field. Stewart, though, couldn't haul in the pass that just brushed his fingertips. And the NU defense had one of its best stops of the day later in the quarter, giving NU the ball with just over two and a half minutes to play.
The right side of the offensive line couldn't hold, though, as the ball was stripped from Kafka's hands and recovered by Minnesota on the three yard line. The NU D held tough on the first two downs, but on third and goal, Minnesota's Adam Weber went to his favorite target, Eric Decker, taking advantage of one-on-one coverage for the game-sealing touchdown completion.
For the second straight week, NU saw its chances die late thanks to a turnover, ending in another Wildcats loss. Despite yielding 352 yards on defense, NU had a chance to win and couldn't pull out the win. Now the Wildcats will try to regroup as they head to face Purdue next week, a must-win game to keep NU's bowl hopes alive with more difficult tests down the stretch.
Player of the Game:
Minnesota RB Duane Bennett (21 carries for 89 yards, 3 touchdowns) This was a tough one, as Decker added two touchdowns of his own, but Bennett's consistent running allowed Minnesota to control much of the game and bleed a significant amount of time from the clock in the final period. Minnesota's ground game had been struggling through the first three games of this year, but it sure found its stride against the Wildcats.
Northwestern Honorable Mentions:
QB Mike Kafka (32-of-47 passing for 309 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception) For the second straight week, Kafka went over 300 yards passing and threw at least two touchdown passes. Unfortunately, his turnovers were costly: The interception came in the red zone and both of his fumbles came late in the fourth quarter with NU looking to drive for a winning score. If he can limit turnovers, the Wildcat offense can be even better.
RB Arby Fields (9 carries for 43 yards, 1 touchdown, 2 receptions for 12 yards) Fields played a lot more snaps than he did a week ago and did some nice things, although the 'Cats didn't run the ball all that much. He ended with just nine carries, but averaged 4.8 yards per carry, had a nice 17-yard run, and punched one in for a touchdown. Fields also made a nice reception, jumping to grab a pass in the middle of the field. Hopefully Fields can be utilized more in coming weeks if Northwestern decides to run the ball more often.
CB Sherrick McManis (9 tackles, 1 interception, 1 pass break-up) McManis had a solid return to action after being held out the last two weeks with an injury, generally containing the Gophers' passing game and creating NU's only takeaway of the day. He routinely lined up on the left side and was only on Decker when he was also on that side, while Decker did the most damage when lined up against Jordan Mabin on the other side of the field.
What to Work on:
Pass Protection: Minnesota racked up four sacks, including the two lost fumbles, as the NU OL seemingly collapsed at the most inopportune times. Kafka didn't exactly help on some occasions as he held onto the football a little too long, giving Minnesota a chance to close in for the kill. But the pass protection needs to be a little more consistent, especially for an offensive attack that relies so much on the pass.
Limit Big Mistakes: NU had multiple chances to put more points on the board: a holding call that negated what would have been a first and goal at the four yard line, Kafka's interception in the red zone late in the second quarter, and the potential long TD pass to Stewart that was just off of his fingertips. And, of course, those costly fumbles deep in their own end near the end of the game that ended any chance of a Northwestern comeback.
Offensive Balance: After sticking to the run almost two thirds of the time in the first two weeks of the year in an effort to hide the majority of the playbook, NU has shifted things around completely, turning into a pass-happy offense. Against Minnesota, NU passed over 60 percent of the time, and that's not even counting the four sacks that were technically passing plays. Opposing defenses are watching closely and will begin to get blitz-happy, especially against an offensive line that hasn't exactly been a wall over the past two weeks.
Kickoff Return Coverage: Minnesota's talented kick returner Troy Stoudermire did a lot of damage against NU, averaging close to 28 yards per kick return, which routinely gave the Gophers solid starting field position. The Wildcats can't afford to continue putting its defense in a hole, especially with that unit faltering relative to preseason expectations.
Tackling: Once again, the Wildcats' tackling wasn't so hot, especially against Minnesota's suddenly-effective running game. NU also let Weber escape at least a couple of potential sacks thanks to misses in the backfield. Those extra yards after contact allowed the Gophers to keep things moving on the ground and end NU's show at a win.
Attendance: NU broke 20,000 in attendance for the first time this year, although the final number was a still unimpressive 22,091, which was aided by a relatively full student section. With the next home game against Miami (OH), NU may have to rely on homecoming (against Indiana) and the late afternoon start against Penn State to boost this year's attendance numbers.
Third Down Conversions: NU came into the game doing a great job on third downs on both sides of the ball, and left not living up to either number. The offense was a tad over 50 percent, converting 9-of-17 third down chances, but the D just couldn't get off the field, allowing 8-of-14 conversions, after coming in with an allowed conversion rate under 30 percent. A good number of those allowed conversions came on running plays, essentially indicting the NU defensive front.
Turnovers: In the preview, it was stated that turnovers would be a deciding factor, and indeed they were, with Minnesota winning the turnover battle 3-1. The Gophers also had seven points that came off of a turnover (the game-sealing fourth quarter TD catch by Decker). As mentioned earlier, a late turnover has doomed NU in each of the last two games.
Rushing Game: NU's rushing average was pretty good once the 39 sack yards were removed, with NU averaging 4.1 yards per carry. But, the 'Cats failed to stick with the running game, choosing instead to rely on Kafka's arm. Meanwhile, Minnesota made good on their preseason promise to run the ball with authority, sticking with their ground game early and often (running it almost 62 percent of the time).
Once again, Northwestern let a potential win slip through their fingers with late mistakes despite a strong offensive showing through the air. The defense has looked very subpar but has given NU a chance to win in both games at the end, only to watch the offense turn the ball back over. While the Wildcats have shown they can compete, they'll need to shore up some issues in order to get that first Big Ten win of the year and to get into the bowl mix.