Football: Northwestern shuts out Minnesota 27-0 in Big Ten opener

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Sophie Mann/Daily Senior Staffer

Redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson hands off to sophomore running back Justin Jackson. The backfield duo powered Northwestern to 312 total yards of offense in a win over Minnesota.

Stephanie Kelly, Managing Editor

Steady play from both the offense and defense allowed No. 16 Northwestern (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) to pull off a 27 shutout in the Cats’ first conference game of the season over a key Big Ten West competitor in Minnesota (3-2, 0-1).

The defense dominated against a lackluster Golden Gophers offense. Sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker continued to star, scoring a defensive touchdown by scooping up and carrying a fumble in to the end zone to seal Minnesota’s fate in the fourth quarter. The anchor of the defense contributed three total tackles, one for loss, in addition to the fumble recovery.

The secondary also impressed, with an interception by junior cornerback Matthew Harris snubbing Minnesota’s first drive of the second quarter. Harris combined with senior corner Nick VanHoose for six total pass deflections, and sophomore safety Godwin Igwebuike led the defense with 9 tackles.

The back four benefited from a swarming defensive line, which sacked Minnesota’s quarterbacks three times and held the Golden Gophers’ rushing attack to just 74 yards.

On the other side of the ball, the offense awoke after a sleeper of a first half. NU opened the second frame with a drive that included a one-handed would-be touchdown catch by sophomore running back Solomon Vault. Though the play was overturned after review, it revitalized the offense, with the Cats converting a fourth down and leaving Jack Mitchell to kick a field goal, making the game 13-0.

“That first drive of the third quarter was critically important in this game,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “That was big. That was really big with the way the weather was today.”

And despite limited scoring early on, redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson’s play was consistent from the start of the game. Instead of taking the first half to warm up like during last week’s game against Ball State, Thorson looked confident in the pocket from the first minute of play.

His passing game in particular looked significantly better, as he completed 14 of 19 attempts for 128 yards with no interceptions. Thorson also rushed for two touchdowns, keeping the Cats’ in the driver’s seat through the game.

“Clayton showed a lot of amazing growth,” senior wide receiver Christian Jones said. “I think Clayton could be one of the greatest to play here.”

Sophomore running back Justin Jackson also quietly turned in another great performance, totaling 120 yards on 20 carries. One drive alone in the third quarter saw Jackson rush a total of 51 yards, allowing Thorson to sneak into the end zone and bring the score to 20-0.

The offense in general kept up its play, relying less on the defense to win the game, and it showed with the 27-0 result. NU powered its way to 312 total yards of offense at a healthy clip of 4.5 yards per play. One of the few negatives was a lack of sustained drives, as only three went for 40 or more yards.

After a dominating shutout against a Big Ten West rival, the Cats look to be an early favorite to win the division. NU will continue conference play next week, traveling to Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a cross-division match-up with the Wolverines.

Email: [email protected]northwestern.edu
Twitter: @StephanieKellyM