The Minnesota Gophers achieved their eighth win of the season with a XX-XX win over Northwestern. Eight wins is not something seen by the Gopher program over the last several decades. In fact Tracy Claeys is only the third coach since Murray Warmath to get to 8 wins. Jerry Kill and Glen Mason each reached the mark twice and Claeys has his Gophers at 8-3 with one game remaining in his first full season.
Today the Gophers got started early and held the Wildcats at arm’s length for all four quarters. They opened the game taking the ball at the 20 and marching down 80 yards in 7 plays to jump up with a touchdown lead just 2:42 into the game. Shannon Brooks had a 32-yard run early, Mitch Leidner connected with Rashad Still for 19 and Rodney Smith had a 16-yard run before he capped it off with a touchdown from the 5.
Up next was the defense, who was excellent all day. On the initial NU drive it was a three-and-out with an 11-yard sack on third down by Gaelin Elmore and Carter Coughlin. Most of the first half was more of this. Northwestern was never able to sustain drives and lost two fumbles while the Gophers managed to put points on the board and lead 12-0 at the half.
The second half was a little different as the NU offense started moving the ball and actually converted to points. They opened the half with a couple more 3-and-outs with Minnesota getting thwarted at the goal line (again) and chipping in a FG to hold a 15-0 lead. But then the Wildcat offense started to get going. Clayton Thorson took NU down the field before Justin Jackson finished off the 75-yard drive to finally put his team on the board. The decision was to go for two, which was thwarted by the Gopher D and it was a 15-6 ballgame.
At this point, late in the third quarter, the Gophers still had a two possession lead and were getting the ball. Seems like things are going well, right? Wrong! Jalen Myrick gets stripped of the ball on the kick return, recovered by Northwestern and they had the ball at the MN 22. This is when Gopher fans start to get very nervous. But the Gopher defense held strong, Northwestern decided to go for it on 4th and 1 from the 13 rather than kick a FG, the Thorson pass was incomplete and Minnesota’s ball again.
The fourth quarter was a scoring explosion in comparison to the first three. It was Mitch Leidner to connected with Drew Wolitarsky for his first touchdown pass since Penn State (week 4!) and the Gophers scored again to keep Northwestern at arm’s length and still not truly a threat. Leidner struggled in the first half, much like he has for most of the Big Ten season, but rebounded to have a nice second half going 7/9 for 95 yards and the Wolitarsky touchdown.
The Wildcats did score next getting the score to 22-12 with a pending 2-point conversion that was missed. The onside was recovered by Rashad Still who took it down the sidelines to the 15. Two plays later Leidner ran the ball for a 12-yard touchdown. The lead jumped back to 29-12 and that was the final.
Quite possibly the best overall game the Gophers have played all year and very good individual performances were all over the field. Blake Cashman had a great game defensively with 10 tackles, 2 sacks and a forced fumble. Steven Richardson with 2 sacks, a forced fumble and recovery. The defense overall had 7 sacks, 12 tackles for loss and held Northwestern to 2/15 on third down.
But the day belongs to the seniors. This class has won 8 games in three out of four seasons, the first class to do so in any of our lifetimes. Jerry Kill came to Minnesota and wanted to build this program “brick by brick” and this is the result of that. Now it is up to Tracy Claeys to continue it.
When they said they were going to play at the University of Minnesota, we weren’t doing things real wel, football-wise or off of the field. They had a big part in believing in what we wanted to do. They established that culture and have kept it going. This senior class has worked harder than any of them.
We are all disappointed to come out short in three ball games, but we’ve had our chances. To get to win at home in the last game at TCF, it means a lot to these players, but it’ll mean a lot to those kids for how much they have put into it.”
This is not any sort of a special season and we aren’t knocking on the door to the Rose Bowl, but an 8-win season is nothing to scoff at. It is unusual territory for a Gopher program that has far more seasons with fewer than 6 wins. This senior class has been 20-8 at home.
But the one thing they have not done is bring home Paul Bunyan’s Axe. They have one more opportunity to do so when they face a top 10 ranked Badger team in Madison. Nine wins and the Axe in our possession, would that be a special season? We’ll discuss that after next week.