Cats come back, lose late lead

Danny Daly

Northwestern had plenty of chances against Minnesota to start the Big Ten season off on a high note. Instead, late-game miscues doomed the Wildcats for the second week in a row.

The Golden Gophers scored 14 unanswered points to overcome a fourth-quarter deficit, stunning the Ryan Field faithful with a 35-24 victory. NU finished with three turnovers, and quarterback Mike Kafka fumbled twice in the last two minutes to allow Minnesota to secure the win.

“We’ve got to find a way to finish games,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When you lose the turnover battle and don’t get off the field when you have opportunities to make plays, it can lead to a long day.”

Kafka passed for more than 300 yards and two touchdowns, his second straight game matching those thresholds. The Cats outgained the Gophers 373-352, even though Fitzgerald’s squad managed just eight yards in the fourth quarter and struggled to establish the run with junior running back Stephen Simmons still sidelined.

Missed tackles were a major problem from start to finish for NU (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten). Three of the Cats’ four leading tacklers were in the secondary, and the team only notched one sack and two tackles for a loss. Meanwhile, the Gophers (3-1, 1-0) had four and six, respectively.

Fitzgerald described his team’s tackling as “awful” and “completely out of character.”

“That’s something that we’ll address and fix immediately,” he said.

The Gophers had their way with the Cats’ defense coming out of the gates, needing just five plays to find the end zone to open the game. Sophomore running back Duane Bennett capped it off with a one-yard burst, the first of his three touchdowns.

NU’s ensuing drive lasted nearly nine minutes and spanned 19 plays, which included five third-down conversions and just two gains of more than eight yards. But a holding call on third-and-one from the six pushed the ball back, and the Cats settled for a field goal.

Kafka said he thought NU should’ve come away from that series with the score tied.

“We’re leaving some (points) out there,” he said. “We really need to find that killer instinct and start getting those points, knowing when it’s there and grasping it.”

The rest of the first half followed in the same back-and-forth manner – each team added a rushing touchdown, and each starting quarterback threw a costly interception. With less than a minute left before intermission, a Kafka pass intended for sophomore superback Drake Dunsmore was overthrown and ended up in the arms of safety Kim Royston on the NU 2-yard line.

Earlier in the quarter, cornerback Sherrick McManis picked off Adam Weber on fourth-and-three in Cats territory. It was the first interception of the season for the senior captain, who missed the last two games due to a leg injury but didn’t show any lingering effects.

“It feels good to be sore, actually,” he said. “I hadn’t been sore in a while.”

Minnesota took a 14-10 advantage into halftime, then extended the lead on its first possession of the third quarter with a 16-yard strike from Weber to senior wide receiver Eric Decker. It was one of eight catches on the day for Decker and his third straight game with a touchdown against the Cats.

Just like last weekend against Syracuse, NU mounted a comeback, seizing a 24-21 lead through three quarters. Kafka hooked up with senior wideout Andrew Brewer on an option read for the first score, then found senior superback Brendan Mitchell in the back of the end zone four-and-a-half minutes later to put the Cats on top.

The play was reviewed to make sure Mitchell had control when his feet were down, and the initial ruling was upheld.

“It was an exciting moment,” Mitchell said. “Any time they have to review a play, you sit back and wonder just a little bit, but I was pretty sure about it. For me to be given the opportunity to take a lead going into the fourth quarter was a great feeling.”

NU’s offense barely saw the ball again, as Minnesota had possession for more than 12 minutes in the final quarter. Following the touchdown, the Gophers marched 83 yards down the field to regain the lead on a four-yard run by Bennett. Senior defensive end Cedric McKinley made the game-changing play on a critical third down after the two teams traded punts, stripping Kafka and falling on the ball at the NU three-yard line. Three plays later, Weber connected with Decker for the final time to give Minnesota an 11-point cushion.

Kafka lost the ball again on the Cats’ first snap of the next drive, and the Gophers kneeled twice to end the game.

“We’ve got to take care of the football in the red zone,” Fitzgerald said. “You can’t turn it over going in, and you can’t turn it over backed up. You put yourself in a tough situation.”

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