Northwestern downs Minnesota 28-13 to clinch fifth straight year of bowl eligibility

Colin Becht

Even when Northwestern was in the midst of a five-game losing streak that dropped it three games below .500, the Wildcats knew this day would come.

For a school-record fifth straight year, NU is bowl eligible. The Cats picked up that crucial sixth win of the season with an easy 28-13 win over Minnesota.

“When we were in the middle of that losing streak, we knew we were a better team than that and we knew that we were not performing the way we could,” senior running back Jacob Schmidt said. “So we knew if we just stayed the course, if we kept working our butts off that we could get back to .500 and now above.”

After beginning the year 2-5, NU (6-5, 3-4 Big Ten) has rallied back with four straight wins, keeping alive the chance to end a bowl drought that has lasted since winning the Rose Bowl in 1949.

“It’s great to get to number six and be bowl eligible,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We put ourselves in that position by the way that we played early – by beating ourselves – we knew our backs were against the wall, and the only way we’re going to get to where we want to be is to fight our way out of it.”

Though six wins makes NU eligible to play in a bowl game, it doesn’t guarantee a bowl berth as the Cats’ fifth-year seniors remember well. Four years ago, NU also won six games but wasn’t selected to a bowl because nine other Big Ten teams also qualified for bowl games. The Big Ten is likely to have 10 bowl eligible teams this year as well. However, other conferences are unlikely to fulfill all of their bowl obligations, leaving slots open for a 6-6 Cats team.

“We know what we have left to do,” Schmidt said. “Six wins doesn’t guarantee anything. We learned that lesson five years ago, so we’ve got to work our butts off this week to beat Michigan State (Saturday) because we know the type of team that they are, so if we can get to seven, then we’re guaranteed to go somewhere.”

Northwestern cruised to its sixth win behind a strong defensive effort that came up with clutch stops to preserve an early lead over the Golden Gophers (2-9, 1-6). Senior safety Brian Peters forced two turnovers deep in Northwestern territory that helped maintain the Cats’ two-possession lead throughout the third quarter.

On the opening drive of the second half, Peters jarred the ball loose from running back Duane Bennett and recovered the fumble at the NU 24.

“I actually missed the tackle but I hit the ball, so that worked out,” Peters said, who played with his left hand in a cast after breaking it in the first quarter against Nebraska. “(The fumble) was sitting between my legs, and I was trying to hold on to it. These guys were trying to rip it away, and I only had one arm, so that was fun.”

Two drives later, Peters came up with another huge play, intercepting quarterback MarQueis Gray in the end zone after the pass tipped off of redshirt freshman safety Ibraheim Campbell.

“It was a great tip, but how about the one-handed man with the club on his hand getting the pick?” Fitzgerald said. “It was hilarious.”

Those two turnovers came at a time marked by a dearth of offense from NU as the Cats failed to score in the second or third quarters. In those two quarters, NU couldn’t muster points on five drives, turning the ball over in Minnesota territory twice.

Senior quarterback Dan Persa bore responsibility for one of those turnovers as he overthrew sophomore wide receiver Rashad Lawrence, floating the pass into the hands of safety Kim Royston.

“I wasn’t making the best decisions and that kind of hurt us,” Persa said. ” I didn’t get on top of it and drive it.”

Luckily for NU, its early offensive outburst was enough as the Cats struck for touchdowns on each of their first three drives.

Set up by kick returns of 44 and 42 yards by sophomore Venric Mark, NU took advantage of the short field for two quick scores to begin the game. The first came on a seven-yard scoring strike from senior quarterback Dan Persa to sophomore quarterback/wide receiver Kain Colter. The second came on a 28-yard touchdown toss to junior wide receiver Demetrius Fields on fourth down.

“They were just playing a two-deep coverage,” Persa said. “I knew we’d send Drake up the seam and I tried to stare that down a little bit, and I knew I had a one-on-one outside with D. Fields. He ran a good route and got by the guy.”

The Cats also got two touchdowns on the ground, both on goal-line option pitches, one to freshman running back Treyvon Green and the other to Schmidt to ice the game in the fourth quarter.

Minnesota dominated the running game, as Gray and Bennett each topped the century mark, but the Golden Gophers only reached the end zone on their first drive of the game. Gray powered himself across the goal line from four yards out for the touchdown.

The six-foot-four, 240-pound dual-threat quarterback finished the game with 271 yards of total offense, passing for 124 and rushing for a game-high 147.

“He’s a big boy,” Peters said. “I was doing fine until (on) the last series I got trucked a little bit. He’s a tough kid. He lowers his body on contact, which isn’t the safest thing, and he does a good job of keeping his legs moving. He’s someone that you have to take his legs out or gang-tackle him.”

Bennett picked up 127 rushing yards on 23 carries, giving the Golden Gophers a pair of 100-yard rushers for the first time since 2003.

“We have obviously got to stop the run better,” Fitzgerald said. “We know we have to win this week’s football game and we’re going to do everything we can to win this game. We can control what we can control.”

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