Football: Cervantes: Different city, same result as Northwestern struggles to muster anything positive against Minnesota


Daily file photo by Kimberly Espinosa

The Northwestern offense huddles together. The Wildcats struggled to score once more, registering just a field goal in a 31-3 loss to Minnesota.

Alex Cervantes, Assistant Sports Editor

MINNEAPOLIS — Missed tackles, missed blocking assignments, lack of game-changing plays and opponents executing aptly, these are the four horsemen of the apocalypse for Northwestern football in 2022. 

The Wildcats have been plagued by the holy quartet of issues since their return to the United States. They have been pinpointed as cause for concern by coach Pat Fitzgerald at countless press conferences as well. Nine consecutive losses later, NU continues to get pummeled and even in the season’s waning moments, there is little sign that course can be corrected.

The trend continued Saturday as the Cats were beaten on the road at Minnesota, 31-3.

NU’s frigid, mid-afternoon clash against the Golden Gophers pitted two teams on divergent paths. Minnesota, squarely in the hunt — though needing help — for the Big Ten West title, took the field with sights still on Indianapolis while the Cats entered as the punching bag of the conference. 

The Golden Gophers, behind a dynamic ground attack, got in several licks early to put the game to bed. Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim asserted his will on defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s bunch, rushing for 178 yards and three scores. Trey Potts, on just 10 carries, added 63 yards, too. Quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis even showed off the wheels outside the pocket, rushing for 28 yards.

Once again coming off an inspired showing in the elements against a top-25 team, NU’s defense vanished in the ensuing contest. The offense wasn’t any better, though.

Four quarterbacks saw time under center for the Cats: sophomores Brendan Sullivan and Cole Freeman and juniors Ryan Hilinski and Carl Richardson. The Golden Gopher defense was constantly pressuring NU’s backfield and the quarterbacks struggled to generate much momentum. 

On the occasions where they were blessed with time in the pocket, Cats quarterbacks, outside of Sullivan who was 9-of-11 passing, missed their wideouts. The NU running game struggled as well, generating just 72 yards on 22 carries. 

All but one of the Cats’ 12 offensive drives finished in less time than the average commercial break during the game. 

“Our inability to be successful and sustain drives on third downs led to our defense being on the field too long,” Fitzgerald said. “Which obviously leads to the outcome of the game.”

Even when primed with advantages, NU came up empty. 

Minnesota’s starting quarterback Tanner Morgan was sidelined for the contest, with Kaliakmanis stepping up in his stead. Kaliakmanis is the third backup quarterback the Cats have faced this season — the team has now lost to all three.

After the defense forced a three-and-out on the Golden Gophers’ opening drive, NU marched into the red zone, courtesy of a 37-yard completion from Sullivan to junior tight end Marshall Lang. But the drive stalled there. The Cats coaching staff would rush junior running back Evan Hull up the middle three times in the next four plays to no avail, turning the ball over on downs.

Fitzgerald defended the decision to go for it on fourth down rather than kicking a field goal.

“I’m trying to win the game,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s an area that’s not something new. You don’t kind of sometimes go for it, you either have a philosophy about (going for it or not), which we do. It looked like for me we didn’t block the point of attack very well … (I was) trying to get seven. I didn’t think this game was going to be 6-3.”

With the second quarter winding to a close, senior wide receiver Malik Washington led NU to the Minnesota 17-yard line after catching two passes for 76 yards. Following three consecutive incompletions from Hilinski though, Fitzgerald departed from his conventional wisdom and took the points, sending the Cats into halftime with a 14-3 deficit. 

Out of the break, when freshman defensive back Devin Turner delivered a crushing hit to force a fumble on a Golden Gopher wideout in the third quarter, the offense turned the ball over on downs again just seven plays later.

Saturday was another crushing result for a team that is now just looking to send the graduating players “out the right way” and continue “creating a brotherhood,” Washington said. 

Ultimately, Fitzgerald and the rest of the coaching staff’s plans may adjust to opposing personnel, the weather or both, but week-in and week-out, the constant in all of it is that NU continues to leave the field bloody and bruised. 

The 47-year-old can talk postgame about the individual errors or breakdowns that cause the Cats to lose games, but the team has been subject to a full two months of those failures and no adjustments have proven effective. 

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Twitter: @CervantesPAlex 

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