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David Sterrett

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Jeff Backes fell down. Northwestern fell apart.

In the first quarter, the Wildcats (2-4, 0-2 Big Ten) dominated Minnesota (6-0, 2-0) in every aspect of the game. Minnesota had eight yards of total offense and zero points. NU had 146 yards and 14 points.

But after Minnesota wide receiver Jared Ellerson burned Backes for a 96-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, NU completely collapsed.

The Cats’ defense was torched by big plays and the offense couldn’t move the ball through the air or on the ground in the final three quarters of the Golden Gophers’ 42-17 win at Ryan Field on Saturday in front of 23,359 fans.

In the final 45 minutes, Minnesota racked up 564 yards and 42 points. NU had 138 yards and three points.

“We could see it in their eyes after the score,” said Ellerson, about his touchdown catch. “They were scared.”

The Cats were as confused about what happened after the game as they were on the field.

The players and coach were certain the team didn’t quit, but they had no answers to why the team that played its best 15 minutes of football in several years laid down for the rest of the game.

“I wish I had an explanation for what took place out there in the second quarter, but I don’t,” coach Randy Walker said. “I’m just disappointed we didn’t respond.

“I don’t know what to do when it goes south like it did today. I will take the blame for it then, that I didn’t get them back to the right place during the game.”

The Cats came out and overpowered Minnesota with their rushing attack , and controlled the ball for more than 11 minutes in the first quarter.

The NU offensive line knocked the Gophers off the ball and the Cats rushed for 71 yards, two touchdowns and nearly five yards a carry in the first 15 minutes.

On the other side of the ball, the Cats’ defense swarmed to the ball and didn’t give up a single rushing yard to the Gophers, who came in averaging 284 yards a game on the ground.

“The first quarter was the worst quarter of football from my perspective I’ve ever been associated with as a coach,” Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. “We got better during the course of the game. It’s the biggest swing I’ve ever been around.”

The turnaround came on a third and seven from the shadows of Minnesota’s endzone with about nine minutes left before the half. NU came on a safety blitz and Gophers quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq dropped back and fired a strike to Ellerson, who was wide open after Backes slipped around the 20-yard line.

“I saw it in their eyes,” NU middle linebacker Pat Durr said. “We had them right there, we had them down.

“Unfortunately Jeff slips, they get a big play and get momentum back. It’s kind of like they took the air out of us, and we just couldn’t fill our balloon back up.”

Minnesota scored 21 unanswered points and racked up more than 200 yards in a six-minute span in the second quarter. NU defenders flailed helplessly at Minnesota running backs and receivers ran wide open across the field as the Gophers marched down the field at will.

All three Minnesota scoring drives took less than two minutes and they had six plays that went for 14 yards or more in the first half, including the first of two 31-yard touchdown runs from Marion Barber III .

“We gave them 21 points right there — handed it to them on a silver platter,” Durr said. “I tried to light the fire under someone and I felt like people were looking right through me. It just felt like that the rest of game. It can’t just come from me, its got to come from everybody.”

Durr and the defense had no help from the offense after the first quarter. The Cats running game disappeared after the first two possessions, and NU had only 46 yards on 20 carries in the final 45 minutes.

With the running game slowed, the Cats turned to the passing game, but quarterback Brett Basanez struggled to hit open receivers and completed only 11-of-20 passes after starting the game off 8 for 12.

“The first two drives we played great and after that we kind of shut it down,” running back Noah Herrron said. “It’s not like they did anything different.”

The Gophers’ domination continued in the second half as Ellerson beat Backes again, this time for an 82-yard score on the third play of the half. NU offensive lineman Matt Ulrich admitted he knew the game was over before the start of the fourth quarter, and NU players slowly ambled back to the sideline with their heads sunk at the end of the third period.

The players in purple and white that stood almost motionless around the coaches didn’t even slightly resemble the group that sprinted off the field and leaped to chest bump one another after the first quarter.

“I think this was a game of attitude lost,” Walker said. “I think our kids are a little fragile and it’s like, gosh, here we go again.

“I think confidence is the whole issue. We haven’t dealt with adversity very well. Good football teams learn how to win. We haven’t consistently learned how to win here the last couple of years.”