Brian Lee/Daily Senior Staffer
Northwestern’s game kicked off 11 a.m. Saturday, and the Wildcats played like they forgot their morning cup of coffee.
NU (4-3, 0-3) lost 20-17 at Ryan Field, falling to Minnesota (5-2, 1-2) in a game NU was favored to win by double digits.
“We’ve just got to play better, is what it comes down to,” junior linebacker Collin Ellis said flatly. “We didn’t play well today, and that’s pretty much how it is.”
The game’s turning point came when junior quarterback Trevor Siemian — playing full-time in place of an injured Kain Colter — threw a third quarter pass directly into the arms of Minnesota linebacker James Manuel. Manuel cruised 24 yards for an easy touchdown.
As coach Pat Fitzgerald said of the interception, “Obviously the choice to make that throw he’d love to have back.”
The score gave the Golden Gophers a 14-7 lead, and the Cats never caught up, trailing 17-7 and 20-10 before a late touchdown.
NU led in the first quarter, when redshirt freshman running back Stephen Buckley carried — literally — the Cats to a first-quarter score. Buckley accounted for 54 of NU’s 72 yards on the drive, including a 33-yard rush and the three-yard touchdown, the first of his career.
Nevertheless, the Cats’ offensive stagnancy continued, a week after scoring only 6 points in a blowout loss to Wisconsin. Saturday, the Cats turned over the ball three times and punted on six possessions. They gained more than half of their total yards on three scoring drives and were otherwise unproductive.
“I see a team that’s not executing very well right now,” Fitzgerald said. “There are some inopportune drops, there are some decisions and choices with the ball. All we have to do is make smart decisions and choices with the football and we win a football game.”
Largely ineffective through 3 1/2 quarters, Siemian heated up late, finding junior receiver Tony Jones for a back-shoulder touchdown catch with two minutes to play. But Minnesota responded with a game-clinching first down, and afterward, Siemian’s two interceptions resonated louder than his 25 completions.
“Mistakes were made,” junior receiver Christian Jones said when asked about Siemian’s play. “A lot of guys made mistakes. … When somebody makes a mistake, everyone else has to pick it up around them. I couldn’t tell you who made mistakes, I was just trying to focus on myself.”
Minnesota’s lone offensive score came via a Philip Nelson 29-yard touchdown pass with 6 minutes and 48 seconds to play in the second quarter. NU redshirt freshman cornerback Dwight White appeared to stumble on the coverage, allowing Minnesota receiver Derrick Engel to slip behind him for the big gain. White was benched and played sporadically thereafter.
Apart from the touchdown play, NU’s defense was fairly sturdy, holding Minnesota to 299 yards of offense. But the unit failed to produce the big play that has defined it all season. Saturday marked the first game this year in which the Cats have not forced a turnover.
“We had two opportunities to get turnovers there,” Fitzgerald said, referring to a pair of fumbles NU failed to recover. “That obviously makes a huge difference in the outcome of the game.”
The loss, NU’s third in a row, effectively ends the Cats’ aspirations of winning the Big Ten’s Legends division and raises doubt about the future for a team once considered one of the conference’s best. Each of NU’s remaining opponents have better records — in conference and overall — than the Cats. The losing streak is NU’s longest since the team dropped five in a row early in the 2011 season.
“If we were playing great and losing that would be tough,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s not like we’re playing great. There’s a lot of room for improvement.”