Football: Minnesota’s 40 minutes of possession time provides massive challenge to Northwestern defense in 27-point loss


Joanne Haner/The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern’s defense prepares for a Minnesota handoff. The Golden Gophers spent more than 40 minutes with the ball in their 41-14 win over the Wildcats.

Gabriela Carroll, Senior Staffer


Under former defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, Northwestern’s philosophy was bend, don’t break. If they allowed a team into the red zone, they forced a field goal, but didn’t allow a touchdown.

Against Minnesota, the Wildcats’ defense bent, but then they still broke.

NU’s defense allowed two field goals on two red zone possessions in the first quarter. Those defensive stops helped the Cats stay competitive, even after allowing a fumble return touchdown on the first offensive snap of the game.

In each game NU has lost this year, it’s fallen behind early and been unable to pull its way back in. The Golden Gophers’ offense was on the field for just over 40 minutes. The Cats’ offensive struggles bled into defensive issues, as the extra time on the field tired out the unit and contributed to a 41-14 loss.

“(The yardage) gets a little skewed in a game like today when you’re on the field for 40 minutes,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “That’s a byproduct of us not getting off the field on third down.”

In the second half, NU (3-5, 1-4 Big Ten) gave up three touchdowns on Minnesota’s (6-2, 4-1) final three drives after allowing just one in the first half. All three of those scores came on rushing plays of greater than 15 yards. The Cats’ defensive weakness throughout the season has been its struggle to defend the run, and the Golden Gophers exploited that issue.

NU’s defense conceded 442 yards to Minnesota, below its average of 530.5 yards allowed in its previous losses. 308 of them came on the ground.

Aside from an interception by sophomore safety Brandon Joseph in the end zone to end the first half and a punt early in the third quarter, the Golden Gophers scored on every drive. Minnesota had just eight drives in the game to NU’s ten, but not one of the Golden Gophers’ drives was under two minutes, while seven of the Cats’ ten drives were under that margin.

With another quarterback controversy brewing, NU is trying to find consistency in the passing game. Sophomore quarterback Ryan Hilinski struggled before getting benched for senior quarterback Andrew Marty, returning from injury to throw for 93 yards and two touchdowns.

The Cats had three three-and-outs and two additional failed fourth down conversions. On one, Marty looked for an open receiver for several seconds before throwing the ball out of bounds.

With NU’s top two receivers — sophomore Bryce Kirtz and graduate Stephon Robinson Jr. — out on Saturday, the quarterbacks struggled to extend drives, forcing the defense to stay on the field.

“We had more drops in the second half than we’ve had in a long time,” Fitzgerald said. “Those are opportunities for first downs and to be able to sustain drives.”

Fitzgerald criticized the Cats’ execution postgame, specifically mentioning the Golden Gophers’ final touchdown courtesy of Derik LeCaptain. He said they knew the runner would cut outside and practiced for that play all week, but couldn’t execute it consistently in the game.

Graduate linebacker Chris Bergin said that the team is struggling with physicality. NU’s defense missed several tackles on runs, including a play similar to last Saturday’s game against Michigan, when the pile of defenders got to the running back early, but the runner still managed a big gain.

Bergin said the team is striving for bowl eligibility and in order to win three of the next four games, they’ll need that physicality, especially in the running game.

“We haven’t played to our standard of violence and physicality,” Bergin said. “We have to make the decision as individuals to choose not to get blocked, (to) choose to be violent. Either you get yours, or you get got, and we’ve got to get ours.”

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Twitter: @gablcarroll

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