Football: Northwestern clings to contender status despite flaws
October 13, 2012
MINNEAPOLIS — With a shaky defense, anemic passing attack and fluid quarterback situation, Northwestern somehow remains a serious contender in the Legends Division.
The Wildcats' (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten) strengths and flaws were on full display against Minnesota on Saturday.
NU scored a blazing 21 points in the first half and junior running back Venric Mark achieved a career high with 182 yards rushing. The defense held the Golden Gophers to 5-of-17 on third and fourth down conversions.
But the Cats failed to score a single point in the second half, lost the time-of-possession battle for the second straight week, converted only one of nine third downs and netted a measly 67 passing yards.
“We knew it would be tough coming up here on the road,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’re not going to win a Miss America pageant this year. We’re too young. We have to find a way to win.”
NU found a way to win with some big plays and a little bit of help.
Minnesota ran 72 plays against the Cats’ defense and managed 327 yards, but the Gophers routinely shot themselves in the foot with ill-timed penalties and miscues.
The Gophers fumbled the opening kickoff, which led to a Mark touchdown run on the next play. The Gophers also fumbled two snaps, threw an interception and committed nine penalties for 82 yards.
On one memorable sequence in the game, Minnesota fumbled a punt return twice before running the ball all the way out to midfield. But a penalty nullified the entire play, bringing the ball back to the Gophers' 15-yard line.
The Cats particularly struggled in the passing game.
Junior quarterback Kain Colter completed all 10 of his passes this week after attempting none against Penn State. He averaged only 6.3 yards per attempt, throwing mostly bubble screens and short out-routes.
Sophomore quarterback Trevor Siemian, who seemed rattled in the fourth quarter against the Nittany Lions last week, came up short on the road again. Siemian finished one of seven for only four yards against Minnesota.
“We just have to continue to coach the guys,” Fitzgerald said. “We have to put three phases of football together. Where we’re at right now is a team that’s young.”
The young NU squad did manage to make enough big plays to keep them ahead of Minnesota.
On the Gophers’ last drive, the defense recorded two sacks, with NU defensive tackle Tyler Scott forcing a fumble and securing the win on the second one.
Mark ran for two long touchdowns on option plays, a 26-yarder on the Cats’ first play from scrimmage and a 48-yard jaunt later in the game. NU ran for 208 yards on 34 carries as a team.
“The game plan was to run the ball down their throat,” Mark said. “We knew the running game was going to be important.”
The defensive line also held their ground, picking up three sacks. Minnesota ran for less than four yards per carry, even with the dynamic MarQueis Gray in the backfield. The senior quarterback ran for 86 of the Gophers’ 158 yards on the ground.
“Gray’s a great player. He’s one of the best athletes in the league,” Fitzgerald said. “You can see his toughness, the way he battled back to go out there and play — that kid’s a war daddy.”
For now, the Cats will accept their do-what-it-takes attitude, winners of six of seven and still growing as the season moves on.
“We’re in it until the end, and we’re going to keep fighting blow for blow until that clock ticks to zero,” Scott said. “Our goal was to go 1-0 this week. We’re going to watch some film, see what we messed up on, see what we can fix, fix those things next week in practice and focus on Nebraska.”