After Minnesota's first two Big Ten games ended in lop-sided losses to Iowa and Michigan, it felt like the Gophers may never win another game. As it turns out, they just needed two weeks to regroup, a quarterback to emerge, and their potential first round pick to finally start playing like a first round pick. Minnesota's defense played their best football while the offense did just enough to hold off the now reeling Northwestern Wildcats 20-17.
Senior DT Ra'Shede Hageman was an absolute monster all afternoon, swatting passes, pressuring NU QB Trevor Siemian, and even picked off one of his passes with one hand. Senior OLB James Manuel played his best game in Maroon and Gold, including a pick-six that gave Minnesota their first lead of the game near the end of the third quarter, and one they wouldn't give back. Manuel made some big tackles, staying home and always seeming to be in the right place at the right time, something that's...well let's just say it was a nice surprise.
The Gopher D held the Wildcats to 328 yards and just 94 rushing, and after allowing Northwestern to convert 4-8 3rd downs in the first half, acting head coach and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys made his usual excellent halftime adjustments and NU ended the game just 6-16. It should be noted that yes, Northwestern was without both dual threat quarterback Kain Colter and star tailback Venric Mark, and the Wildcats attack looked like a shell of the powerhouse attack it was earlier on the season. But credit needs to go to Clayes and the defense too, because in its season opener at Cal, Northwestern played almost the entire game without Colter and only had 29 yards rushing from Mark yet still put up over 500 yards of offense in the 44-30 win.
That didn't happen today, as the defense made plays when they needed to in the first half then put the clamps down in the second half until that final Wildcat TD drive. Still, it was the kind of performance we had waiting for, and one that's going to be need to be repeated for Minnesota to go bowling this season. That's because while the offense was better today, it's still a long way from good. In fact, against Northwestern it was barely good enough.
Mitch Leidner got the start, and it was one he deserved based on his play against Michigan. However, after four straight series that resulted in just one first down and three three-and-outs, the coaching staff made the decision to switch to Nelson and it paid off immediately. Nelson led the Gophers on an 8 play drive that he capped off with a 29 yard TD pass to Derek Engel to tie the game at 7. It would be the only offensive TD of the game for Minnesota, but Nelson looked as confident and poised in the pocket, making decisions, and throwing the ball as he's looked since his breakout game against Purdue last season. PN9 finished 8-11 for 112 yards and that lone TD, and perhaps just as importantly, didn't turn the ball over. The team rushed for 176 yards, led by a man-sized 103 yard effort from David Cobb, who at times literally carried the offense in the second half.
Engel led all Gopher receivers with just 2 catches for 42 yards and that score, though the Caledonia Clipper Isaac Fruechte was absolutely robbed of a touchdown thanks to a phantom offensive pass interference call on teammate Drew Wolitarsky. The refing on the day was pretty awful, as the usually disciplined Gophers were flagged 9 times for 89 yards. Sure, some they definitely deserved, but a few key calls that went against Minnesota were so laughably bad I was waiting for the referee to reveal a Wildcat jersey underneath his uniform. Or, perhaps more fitting of a Northwestern Man, a purple argyle sweater with matching scarf. Or an ascot.
Still, the Gophers hung on and got their first Big Ten victory. I was going to complain about the play-calling or a second straight week of basically taking a knee to close the half despite having all kinds of time, field position and/or timeouts, but why bother? We'll worry about that and Nebraska next week. A win today was unexpected, and that's one reason why I don't care about the areas for concern, just that Minnesota is finally on the board in the Big Ten and just one win away from going bowling again.
Great to see head coach Jerry Kill, who remains on an indefinite leave of absence, at the game as he watched from a private box at the game. No word yet on Kill's return, but it was nice to see his team make a return to the win column. For the rest of the weekend enjoy the win today, maybe watch some Gopher Hockey tonight, and enjoy a Sunday tomorrow that's guaranteed to not include yet another Vikings loss.