Saturday, October 19, 2013

Gophers capitalize on Northwestern mistakes, steal 20-17 victory in Evanston

A picture of Chicago, because Northwestern is its team, of course

With both Northwestern and Minnesota coming off of back-to-back losses after 4-0 starts, this one would be a step back from the abyss for one team and one fewer fingertip on the ledge for the other.

Mitch Leidner got the start for the Gophers, looking to build upon an encouraging start against Michigan (the score of that game notwithstanding). On the first drive, a third down completion for a first down was wiped out by a penalty. On the next play, 3rd & 12, Northwestern's Ibraheim Campbell set the tone.

Leidner scooted out of the pocket, much like he did against Michigan, heading down the right side. A few yards short of the first down line, Leidner lowered his shoulder in an attempt to run Campbell over. However, as is often the case, Campbell was having none of it, stopping Leidner short on a hit that was reminiscent of Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri's clocking of Thomas Rawls in last season's Michigan-Alabama game.

Northwestern answered with a three-and-out of its own, a sequence which just about equaled a win for the Gophers. Minnesota picked up the first first down of the game, an 11-yard completion to Drew Wolitarsky. On the next play, Leidner overshot a wide open Maxx Williams in the middle of the field, who had nothing but open space before him.

A couple of drives later, Minnesota elected to run it up the gut on 3rd & 6, perhaps a response to the Minnesota defense's success to that point. Unfortunately for the Gophers, that conservatism was a little premature.

The Wildcats' third drive took eight plays to go 72 yards, capped Stephen Buckley rushes of 33, 11 and 3 yards (the last for a touchdown) and a 12-yard Christian Jones reception. Northwestern was aided by sloppy Minnesota tackling--particularly on Buckley's 33-yard romp down the left side--but the offense, without the services of Kain Colter (save for emergency situations) or Venric Mark--hummed along nonetheless.

Heading into the second quarter down 7-0 and having amassed just 44 yards, the Gophers desperately needed a stop in Northwestern's next offensive series. The Gopher defense bent but did not break; Trevor Siemian led the Wildcats down to the Minnesota 35 before eventually taking a sack on 3rd & 5.

The Gophers had done an admirable job thus far defensively, but the offense would have to generate some points. Minnesota had some success on designed Leidner runs and had that play action look deep to Williams that fell incomplete; the Gophers would have to go that well again if they were planning on cracking Mike Hankwitz' NU defense.

For the Minnesota coaching staff, however, it wasn't nearly enough, as Philip Nelson entered the game in the second quarter. The Gophers went to the ground, however, and hit it hard. After some strong running from David Cobb and Donnell Kirkwood, Minnesota dialed up another play action. This time, Nelson hit Derrick Engel for a 29-yard score to tie the game. It appeared that Minnesota had found its offensive formula for success.

Shortly thereafter, Ra'Shede Hageman picked off Siemian, but the Gopher offense was not able to capitalize on the error. Minnesota then forced an NU three-and-out and called timeout to stop the clock with 1:52 to go in order to give the offense another shot, the same thing UConn did against Michigan a few weeks ago; it's never a good sign for the favorite when the underdog feels good enough to do that.

Nelson hit Wolitarsky over the middle on 3rd & long to keep the drive alive and put the Gophers near field goal range. Minnesota handled the situation poorly, however, letting quite a bit of time run off the clock. Naturally, Minnesota's 44-yard field goal attempt went wide left, and the two teams headed into the half tied at 7-all.

All in all, like the Michigan game, the first half was a win for the Gophers, who mostly stifled the Mark- and Colter-less offense and found some offensive rhythm of their own in the second quarter.

Trevor Siemian went to work to start the third quarter, completing passes of 7, 10 and 7 yards to the Jones receivers (Christian and Tony). The drive bogged down near midfield, as Hageman and his cohorts caved in the pocket, resulting in a Hageman deflection.

Minnesota went to Cobb again on the ensuing drive, and he answered the call, busting a 24-yarder up the middle. Strangely, however, the Gophers elected to go back to Leidner despite Nelson's success. A Tyler Scott sack on the next play and a false start doomed the drive, and the Gophers were forced to punt on its second opportunity to take the lead after tying it 7-7.

The Wildcats continued to flounder on offense, going three-and-out. Upon receiving the ball, the Gopher offense drove down to the NU 41, powered by, you guessed it, the Twin Cities-based law firm Kirkwood and Cobb.

As the Gophers continued to drain the clock, it seemed as if two scores might just win the game. On 3rd & 7, the Wildcats once again threw a four defensive end look at Minnesota. Nelson side-stepped the pressure and hit Kirkwood for three yards. Minnesota elected to go for it on 4th & 4 from the 33 (obviously the right call).

Nelson dropped back and tossed a beauty of a floater right into Isaac Fruechte's bread basket, but a seemingly questionable offensive pass interference call negated that, keeping the score at 7-all. With only a couple of minutes left in the third, a touchdown could have represented the winning score for the Gophers.

However, the ball don't lie. On NU's ensuing drive, Siemian tossed another pick, this time returned for six by Minnesota's James Manuel. Even without Mark and Colter, it seemed unlikely that NU would be held to just seven points at home; the 'Cats would have 16:22 left to avoid that outcome.

With the opportunity to answer, the 'Cats did just the opposite. For the second possession in a row, Siemian turned it over, this time fumbling at his own 25 on first down. A Minnesota score of any kind seemed like it would have been too much for the struggling Northwestern offense to overcome.

Faced with another 4th & 4, this time from NU's 17, the Gophers appeared ready to go for it before letting the remaining time in the third quarter run out. Predictably, the Gophers chose to kick the field goal upon coming out for the fourth quarter. This time, PK Chris Hawthorne put it through the uprights from 34 yards out, giving the Gophers a seemingly insurmountable 17-7 lead.

Things were looking dire for the Wildcats, but Siemian managed to lead them down to the Minnesota 18, where they eventually settled for a Jeff Budzien field goal to cut the lead to 17-10.

Once again, powered by Kirkwood and Cobb and a timely third down completion by Nelson, the Gophers drove down the field, ultimately settling for a 38-yard field goal to take a 10-point lead once again.

Northwestern's season was unraveling before its eyes, as Siemian's 2nd & 5 completion to Mike Trumpy went for a 5-yard loss. Then, the Cats jumped on third down, leading to a 3rd & 15. Siemian couldn't convert, and the 'Cats were seemingly a 4th down away from going 4-3.

Siemian dropped back and zinged it well past Tony Jones, but another questionable pass interference saved the 'Cats from certain defeat. Northwestern picked up the tempo, but were eventually met with a 4th & 10 from the Minnesota 34. Siemian calmly delivered a strike to Christian Jones up the middle to keep the drive alive.

Eventually, with a first & goal from the 10, Siemian delivered a beautiful back shoulder fade to Tony Jones for a score, cutting the lead to 20-17. Northwestern was unable to recover the onside kick with just over two minutes left; however, the Wildcats still held all three timeouts.

With a Minnesota 3rd & 6 and a chance to possibly get the ball back, Nelson rolled out to his right but elected to tuck it and run. Nelson got out to the right side and dove for the first, effectively ending any hope of a Northwestern comeback.

Needless to say, this was an enormous win for the Gophers against an admittedly short-handed Northwestern squad.

Short-handed or not, though, this was a fairly brutal loss from start to finish for a Wildcat squad that was riding high after its 4-0 start. I suppose actual Northwestern fans--and not grad school posers such as myself--are probably used to this sort of thing, but it doesn't make this sort of loss any less palatable.

I would assume that Mark and Colter will be ready to play against Michigan, so this performance likely isn't indicative of what Michigan should expect on Nov. 16 in Evanston. Regardless, Northwestern is pretty much knocked out of the race for the division at this point, with all three of its losses coming against Big Ten foes.

The Wildcats have a gutcheck game in Iowa City next weekend, while the Gophers' home tilt against Nebraska just got slightly more interesting after today's victory.

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