The Minnesota Golden Gophers bid farewell to an outstanding senior class on Saturday, but sent them home from TCF Bank Stadium with a 29-12 win over the Northwestern Wildcats. The Gophers now stand at 8-3 on the season, with a chance at nine (or even 10) wins with a game against Wisconsin next week and then a bowl game to close out the year. This is the program’s third eight-win season in the last four years. Let’s not overlook the significance of that. But first, we take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly from Saturday’s victory over the Wildcats.
The Gopher defense. Seven sacks, 12 tackles for loss, and two turnovers. Not to mention stopping Northwestern three times on fourth down to give the ball back to Minnesota. The Wildcats were also held to 63 yards rushing, and were shut out in the first half for the first time since also being held scoreless at the half by Illinois State. This was a dominant defensive performance and a nice slice of revenge after the drubbing the Gophers received last year in Evanston.
Steven Richardson. In the postgame press conference, the junior defensive tackle recounted how a Northwestern assistant coach visited him in high school, looked him up and down, and left after deciding he wasn’t tall enough to play at this level. Richardson evidently never forgot that, and he made sure that coach wouldn’t forget him either by feasting on the Northwestern offensive line on Saturday. He collected two of the Gophers’ seven sacks — including a strip sack that would lead to a field goal — and was a huge reason the Minnesota defensive line was able to pressure Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson, even with a four man pass rush at times.
Hey @Northwestern am I still too short to play Big Ten football?— Steven Richardson (@mteam_srich) November 20, 2016
Blake Cashman. Just two Gophers have six or more sacks on the season — Richardson and sophomore linebacker Blake Cashman. In the last three games alone, Cashman has five sacks. He led the Gopher defense in tackles against Northwestern with a career-high 10 tackles, including two sacks. After playing sparingly in the first half of the season, the Eden Prairie product has surprisingly emerged as a force to be reckoned with at linebacker, filling in for the injured Cody Poock.
Shannon Brooks. Rodney Smith has been the star of the show at running back all season long, but it was Brooks who came up big against Northwestern. In the second half, Minnesota appeared poised for a potential collapse after allowing the Wildcats to score their first touchdown of the game, fumbling the ensuing kickoff return, and mustering 30 yards on three offensive drives. But Brooks put the offense on his back, accounting for 53 yards of an 80-yard touchdown drive that seized the momentum from Northwestern and allowed the Gophers some breathing room.
Second half Mitch. In the second half, Mitch Leidner was 7-of-9 for 95 passing yards, with one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown. In the senior quarterback’s final home game, I was glad to see Mitch finish strong, especially after a miserable first half and near the end of a season where he has struggled mightily in conference play.
The seniors. With two games left in their college careers, this senior class holds a 30-20 overall record the last four years. They’ve won eight games in three of the last four seasons. They’ve beaten Michigan, Iowa, Nebraska, and Penn State, with a chance to beat Wisconsin next week. They helped lead the Gophers to their first New Year’s Day bowl game since 1962. They’ve reached a bowl game each of the last four seasons, including the program’s first bowl win since 2004. They even came within one game of winning the Big Ten West in 2014. What this senior class has accomplished in four years is remarkable. Gopher fans everywhere owe them a debt of gratitude.
Targeting. Stop it.
The offensive line. Just beating a dead horse at this point. Twice, the Gophers elected to kick a field goal on 4th and Goal from the 1-yard line. That’s sad and ridiculous, and speaks to the lack of faith this coaching staff has in their offensive line. It didn’t help that Rodney Smith was visibly frustrated with the poor line play at times. Not being able to convert those red zone opportunities into touchdowns could have easily cost Minnesota the game. Offensive line coach Bart Miller has serious work to do.
First half Mitch. I’ll be honest: I was packing my bags and preparing to hop on the first flight off of Leidner Island at halftime. Mitch has generally been subpar throughout conference play this season, but the awful throws we saw in the first half against Northwestern had me pulling my hair out. The underthrown pass to Eric Carter that was intercepted might’ve been the low point for me. Scratch that. The low point for me was definitely Glen Mason after halftime: “You have to be impressed with the job Mitch Leidner is doing right now.” Go home, Glen. That 62-yard pass to Rashad Still down the sideline was pretty awesome though.