Cats have the Golden touch

Matt Baker

After a back-and-forth game that featured a 21-point second-half comeback, a game-tying touchdown on 4th and Goal, two overtime periods and a failed two-point conversion to end the game, coach Pat Fitzgerald’s opening statement at his post-game press conference said it all.

“Wow. Questions?”

But what questions are left to answer after Northwestern’s thrilling 49-48 double-overtime win over Minnesota at Ryan Field on Saturday?

Quarterback C.J. Bacher showed last week’s 520-yard performance wasn’t a fluke, completing 41-of-58 passes for 470 yards and four touchdowns.

The offensive line showed it is on the rise, allowing zero sacks for the first time all season.

And the Wildcats’ defense showed it can make big plays at the end of games to keep bowl hopes alive for NU (4-3, 2-2 Big Ten).

After the Cats held Minnesota (1-6, 0-4) to just 65 yards on its first four drives, the Golden Gophers racked up 370 yards on their next five possessions, scoring a touchdown each time.

Their final score, a 28-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Adam Weber to wide receiver Ernie Wheelwright, gave Minnesota a 35-14 lead with 6:18 left in the third quarter.

“They got some big plays on us, and we didn’t respond,” senior linebacker Adam Kadela said. “The hallmark of our team is we like to say we respond, and we didn’t do that. But then we turned it around.”

That turnaround began on the next Minnesota possession, when linebacker Malcolm Arrington jumped into the air, picked off a pass from Weber and ran 27 yards to the Minnesota 8.

Bacher found junior wide receiver Ross Lane in the middle of the end zone on the next play to cut the deficit to 14.

“I think that was probably the turning point in the game,” Bacher said of Arrington’s interception. “It was a great play by Malcolm. The defense really seems to come through when we absolutely need them, and that’s the sign of a great defense.”

On the next possession, linebacker Eddie Simpson tipped Weber’s pass on third down, and defensive lineman Corey Wootton dove forward to grab the ball for NU’s second straight pick. The Cats were ranked last in the Big Ten with two interceptions all year coming into Saturday’s game.

NU capitalized on the Golden Gophers’ mistake with a 10-play, 47-yard drive. On 4th and 2 from the Minnesota 6, Bacher kept the ball on an option left, lifting it over his head and pointing to the stands as he crossed the goal line to make the score 35-28 with 10:31 left.

Minnesota had a chance to seal the game, but kicker Joel Monroe’s 44-yard attempt sailed wide right to give the Cats the ball at their own 27 with 1:59 left.

Bacher responded and led NU to the Minnesota 9 with less than a minute left. He threw two incompletions before finding running back Omar Conteh on a screen pass to set up 4th and goal from the 4 with 12 seconds left.

The junior quarterback dropped back as wide receiver Eric Peterman faked a slant inside and bounced toward the sideline. Bacher fired the ball between two Minnesota defenders and hit his receiver in the end zone to send the game to overtime.

The pass was two inches away from being an interception, Peterman said.

“I kept my hands ready. You’ve got to expect that it doesn’t get tipped,” Peterman said. “Luckily it didn’t, and it worked out for us.”

On the third play of overtime, Weber hit a leaping Wheelwright on a 21-yard fade pass down the left sideline to put Minnesota up seven. It was Wheelwright’s third touchdown of the day.

The Cats answered when Bacher scrambled right and threw across his body to a wide-open Lane just past the goal line.

In double overtime, Bacher faked a wide receiver screen, instead handing the ball off to running back Brandon Roberson, who rushed six yards up the middle into the end zone. Amado Villarreal added the extra point to put NU up seven.

After converting earlier on fourth down, Minnesota’s Weber faked a pitch on an option left to throw off NU safety Reggie McPherson and rushed three yards into the end zone.

Minnesota chose to go for the win with a two-point conversion. Weber scrambled right but found Kadela rushing at him.

“We knew they were probably going to spread it out,” said Kadela, who finished with a game-high 15 tackles. “I had the back man-to-man, and I saw he was blocking, and I just came off and tried to make a play.”

Weber narrowly avoided the sack, but defensive lineman John Gill followed Kadela and forced an errant pass that landed five yards from the nearest Golden Gopher to end the game.

“We’re really built on responding,” Bacher said. “It’s one of our main goals, kind of what Northwestern football’s all about. We were able to do that today.”

Reach Matt Baker at [email protected]