Football: Wildcats hold on late, become bowl eligible

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Rafi Letzter/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern running back Venric Mark evades tacklers on the wet field at Minnesota. Mark provided the majority of the offense for the now-bowl eligible Wildcats, rushing for a career high 182 yards on 20 carries.

Josh Walfish, Gameday Editor

MINNEAPOLIS — Saturday was just another example of Northwestern finding a way to win a football game.

The Wildcats failed to score a single point in the second half, but held on to beat Minnesota 21-13 to get to six wins and bowl eligibility. However, coach Pat Fitzgerald stressed there is a lot more to play for this season than getting to a bowl: winning the Legends Division.

“I don’t think they have a clue that (we are bowl eligible) in that locker room,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s not the goal on the board.”

NU started off fast, forcing a fumble on the opening kick and converting the takeaway into seven points on the next play. It was a sign of things to come for the Cats in the first 20 minutes of the game, when they outscored the Golden Gophers 21-10.

Venric Mark was a key cog in the game plan for the Cats, who ran the ball 34 times in 51 plays. The junior running back set a career-high with 182 yards, including 151 in the first half. His two scores gave the team some momentum, but there was someone else on his mind. Sophomore Treyvon Green left the team Thursday to tend to a family emergency and Mark said the running backs were inspired by their teammate.

“Treyvon is just an amazing guy,” Mark said. “He’s just a great guy to be around. We feed off his energy during practice, we feed off his energy during games.”

The running game’s success did not lead to many triumphs for the aerial attack. NU was a measly 11 of 17 through the air for 67 yards. Junior Kain Colter completed all 10 of his passes, but sophomore Trevor Siemian struggled throughout game to find a rhythm and only completed one of his seven attempts.

The passing game was particularly bad on third down, where NU was 1 for 9. Most of the issues on third down were dropped passes, including a couple by Colter on the sidelines. It did not help that the Cats had 11 penalties for 93 yards, which set them up in long-distance situations.

“We’ve got to take advantage of some things,” Fitzgerald said. “They put nine guys in the box, and we’ve got to throw to guys that are open. We’ve got to be better than 1 for 10 on third and fourth down combined, and we’ve got to be able to throw the ball more efficiently and more effectively.”

When the offense stalled in the second half, the defense started to play much better. In the first stanza, the Cats gave up 211 yards in total, 148 on the ground. Most of that yardage came from Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray and running back Donnell Kirkwood, who combined for 136 yards. Gray terrorized the NU defense for 77 yards on 6 carries, including a 25-yard touchdown run during which the Cats missed three tackles.

“He’s big, so you’ve got to bring the pads when you tackle him,” senior defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt said. “Arm tackles aren’t going to work in the Big Ten.”

In the second half, NU locked Minnesota down to 116 yards and a field goal. Gray ran three times for nine yards and the rest of the Golden Gophers had 12 rushes for one yard.

Fitzgerald said his defense was in position more in the final 30 minutes and did a better job tackling the ball carrier. The coach praised his defensive player for what he considered their best game of the season.

“Our defensive line played outstanding today,” Fitzgerald said. “That was the best that group has played. Those guys were really active.”

NU’s defense also forced two turnovers, an interception from Gray that the Cats turned into a touchdown and a fumble on Minnesota’s final drive that sealed the victory. Fitzgerald said winning the turnover battle 3-0 is a crucial aspect to winning on the road.

This win may not have been the prettiest, but Arnfelt said every triumph in the conference is good for the Cats.

“I don’t think any victory’s ugly in the Big Ten,” Arnfelt said. “They’re all hard fought and both sides executed real well and obviously we got the win.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Donnell Kirkwood’s name. The Daily regrets the error.