Football: Little mistakes, big kick return cost Northwestern in loss to Minnesota


Nathan Richards/Daily Senior Staffer

Trevor Siemian caps a 97-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown rush. Immediately following the score, Minnesota’s Jalen Myrick returned Northwestern’s kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, sending the Wildcats to a 24-17 loss.

Alex Putterman, Sports Editor

MINNEAPOLIS — After two steps forward, Northwestern took a big one back Saturday.

The Wildcats (3-3, 2-1 Big Ten) lost 24-17 to Minnesota (5-1, 2-0) at TCF Bank Stadium, killing the good vibes from the team’s upsets of Penn State and Wisconsin the past two weeks.

The critical play for the Golden Gophers was Jalen Myrick’s 100-yard kickoff-return touchdown with 7:19 to play in the fourth quarter. The return gave Minnesota a 7-point lead immediately following a game-tying NU touchdown.

Poor coverage on Myrick’s game-winning touchdown was the most dramatic of several NU special teams miscues, including an 11-yard punt and a kick return dropped out of bounds. Those issues, plus several key penalties in the first half, proved a major difference.

“I don’t think it was anything glaring” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We made little detail mistakes today that probably don’t show up on the stat sheet but are big, difference-making plays.”

The Cats’ final hopes were snuffed out when senior receiver Kyle Prater dropped what could have been a first-down on fourth-and-3 with 2:23 to play and NU down 7.

Before the decisive kick return, the Cats had tied the game with one of the their best drives of the season. NU advanced 97 yards for a touchdown, with senior quarterback Trevor Siemian peppering the field with pinpoint throws and eventually sneaking in the score from 2 yards out.

Siemian threw well overall Saturday, completing 32 of 50 passes for 269 yards but missing several receivers downfield. NU’s biggest gain of the day was a 21-yard screen-pass, and the Cats produced only three plays of 15 or more yards.

“I don’t know how many explosive plays we had,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t think we had any, offensively. Or very few. We’ve got to make more explosive plays.”

Of the deep balls Siemian did attempt, one was caught but called back on a penalty, one was overthrown and one was dropped. In the second half particularly, the quarterback appeared more comfortable to throw short passes and check-downs.

“We tried to go over the top a lot,” Siemian said, “but they had a good pass rush, so you can’t hold back and squeeze the ball and let the plays develop too much.”

Freshman running back Justin Jackson continued his progression toward stardom, gaining 106 yards on the ground and 50 more through the air. Jackson scored NU’s first touchdown, on an 11-yard swing pass from Siemian early in the second quarter.

The Golden Gophers reached the end zone on two of their first three drives, scoring on two Mitch Leidner quarterback sneaks at the goal line.

Leidner, who entered the day with only 529 passing yards on the season, threw for 153 yards Saturday on 10-of-15 passing.

The Cats failed to capitalize on Leidner’s one major mistake — a third-quarter interception to NU cornerback Nick VanHoose — gaining only five yards and punting after taking possession at midfield.

The Cats contained Minnesota running back David Cobb, who needed 30 carries to rack up his 97 yards and never broke free for the type of big play that plagued NU last week against Wisconsin.

Entering Saturday, NU sat on top of the Big Ten West with an easy schedule ahead and a division title in sight. But those hopes evaporated as Myrick hit the hole on his kick return and effectively vanished as the speedster outran VanHoose to the end zone.

“It was just bad assignments for our kickoff team,” VanHoose said. “We just didn’t do our jobs. That’s what it comes down to: guys doing our jobs.”

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Twitter: @AlexPutt02
See our full coverage of the 2014 football season on our Gameday blog.