Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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A triumphant return

MINNEAPOLIS – On Wednesday, junior safety and punt returner Brendan Smith said: “In the last seconds, I want the ball in my hands to try to make a play. I’m going to make a play.”

On Saturday, senior cornerback David Oredugba told Smith before Northwestern’s game at No. 20 Minnesota:

“You know, I have a feeling you’re going to have a pick-six.”

These guys must be psychic.

With 12 seconds left in regulation and the score tied at 17, Smith intercepted a tipped pass from Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber and returned it 48 yards for a score, propelling NU to a dramatic 24-17 victory.

“We just wanted to prove to the country that we’re a contender and that we can play with anybody,” junior defensive end Corey Wootton said. “And we did.”

Before Smith’s pick, the clear star of the game for the Wildcats (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten) was junior quarterback Mike Kafka. Filling in for injured starter C.J. Bachér, Kafka had 217 rushing yards, a school record for a quarterback and the most for any NU player since Tyrell Sutton rushed for 244 yards against Wisconsin in 2005.

As good as Kafka was, he couldn’t lead the offense to a go-ahead score in the second half. The game was still tied with 26 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter when Weber threw over the middle to standout wide receiver Eric Decker.

The ball bounced through Decker’s hands and smacked into Oredugba’s chest. But the senior defensive back could not hold on to it.

“(The ball) just bounced off my hands,” he said. “The funny thing is, (the players) always make fun of me for my bad hands. So thank the Lord for giving me bad hands.”

Smith was there to corral the interception, and he had only one thought on his mind.

“I got the ball, and I just thought touchdown,” he said.

Behind a wall of blockers, Smith raced down the left side of the field, then cut back at the Gophers’ 20-yard line and headed for pay dirt.

“I thought he got tackled,” Wootton said. “I turned to look, and I saw him running this way, and I had to keep blocking. I saw him get in the end zone, and I was so pumped.”

After both offenses lit up the field in the first half, Smith’s “pick-six” was the only scoring in the second half.

The Cats got the ball first, and Kafka immediately quieted the Homecoming crowd at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.

In his first start since 2006, Kafka looked nothing like the discombobulated quarterback who fumbled on consecutive plays last week. The junior attacked the Minnesota defense from the first play, when he put a wicked spin-move on Gophers’ linebacker Kevin Mannion during an 11-yard run.

Kafka capped the seven-play, 78-yard drive with a 36-yard touchdown pass to freshman wideout Jeremy Ebert.

“It was man coverage, and I stuck my man inside and beat him over the top,” Ebert said. “Mike threw a great ball.”

NU added a field goal later in the first quarter to take a 10-0 led, but the Gophers responded quickly. Weber calmly marched his offense up the field, capping a seven-play, 80-yard drive with an 11-yard strike to Decker on the first play of the second quarter.

The Gophers took the lead later in the second period when Kafka telegraphed an out route to senior receiver Ross Lane. Minnesota’s Traye Simmons stepped in front of it and returned the pick 23 yards for the touchdown, giving the Gophers had a 14-10 advantage.

Kafka, who finished with 143 yards passing and two touchdowns to complement his ground game, rebounded with a 53-yard run that set up his two-yard touchdown pass to sophomore superback Josh Rooks.

“To see (Kafka) step up in his first start today and go 12-for-16 (passing), that’s a pretty impressive performance in my book,” NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

Minnesota added a field goal late in the first half to even the score at 17.

In the second half, the teams traded punts and missed field goals. NU’s first takeaway since cornerback Jordan Mabin’s fourth-quarter interception against Purdue two weeks ago proved to be the difference.

After the wild finish, the Cats celebrated a win that almost certainly guarantees them a trip to a bowl game.”I’ve been in a lot of close ballgames in my years,” Oredugba said. “They used to call us ‘the Cardiac Cats’ for a reason. When it’s the fourth quarter of a close game, I have the utmost confidence in my teammates.”

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
A triumphant return