MINNEAPOLIS – Junior defensive end Corey Wootton said he knew Saturday’s game would come down to which team’s defense played better.
Northwestern won the battle.
The Wildcats’ defense allowed 10 points – and none in the second half – to a team that was averaging a little more than 28 points per game. The other seven points came on an interception return for a touchdown by Minnesota defensive back Traye Simmons.
“We’ve proven this year that we can be the rock to our team,” said Wootton, who had one sack.
NU allowed 68 yards rushing, the majority of which came on broken plays when quarterback Adam Weber was flushed out of the pocket and scrambled away from the pressure. Minnesota averaged 2.7 yards per carry, half as many as NU.
One of the game’s biggest plays came during Minnesota’s eight-minute, 19-play drive early in the third quarter. On second-and-goal at the 2-yard line, Weber took an option keeper off the left side. The defensive line appeared to bite on the fake, but senior defensive end Kevin Mims kept containment and tackled Weber for a loss of one. Two plays later, kicker Joel Monroe missed a 20-yard field goal from the left hash, keeping the game tied at 17.
In the game’s final seconds, the defense’s ability to stop the run, make Minnesota one-dimensional and apply pressure up front led to junior safety Brendan Smith’s interception return for a touchdown.
“When you shut down the run game and know they’re going to pass it, you can focus all of your attention to stopping the pass,” senior cornerback David Oredugba said. “It’s a huge luxury having a D-line like we do.”
FIGHTING THE INJURY BUG
Playing without senior starters Malcolm Arrington, Tyrell Sutton and C.J. Bachér left the Cats depleted before Saturday’s game. The Metrodome turf did not make things easier.
Redshirt freshman defensive end Vince Browne did not return after injuring his left knee on kickoff coverage in the first quarter. Junior offensive guard Desmond Taylor left the game in the third quarter with an undisclosed injury. Wootton (leg cramps) and redshirt freshman safety Brian Peters (leg injury) each missed a few series but returned.
NU still found a way to win on the road.
“I think we’re a pretty deep football team,” Fitzgerald said. “All you control is if you’re ready or not. And if you’re ready, you go out there and take advantage of the opportunity.”
Wootton said the team intentionally practices different scenarios throughout the week, in which starters play with backups and vice versa. That preparation paid off.
“When a guy goes down, it’s unfortunate, and your heart pours out for him,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a member of your family that gets banged up. The way that you can raise them up the most is to step up for them.”
Fitzgerald’s opening statement to the media following Saturday’s game clearly revealed his feelings about the win.
“Wow,” he said. “Questions?”
Following an unsuccessful fake field goal attempt by Minnesota to start the fourth quarter, Fitzgerald took a page out of Tiger Woods’ book and pumped his left fist in the air.
“It was a crazy emotional game,” Wootton said. “We were just stressing to keep going. Keep pushing the pedal.”
Senior cornerback David Oredugba, who deflected Weber’s pass that was intercepted and returned for the touchdown, said the game was “beyond emotional.”
NU moved to No. 25 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll. … The win was NU’s first over a ranked opponent since 2005, when the Cats upset No. 22 Michigan State 49-14. … NU is guaranteed a winning season for the first time under Fitzgerald. … NU had been outscored by a combined 33-6 in the first quarter of Big Ten games prior to Saturday but led 10-0 after the first 15 minutes against Minnesota.