Minnesota and Northwestern both began the year 4-0 before each team lost two straight entering Saturday’s contest. Despite being an underdog on the road, it was the Gophers who emerged victorious with a 20-17 win in Evanston, Ill. Here are the grades for Minnesota’s first Big Ten win of the season.
Running offense: B+
With Rodrick Williams on the sideline for the game due to off-the-field issues, Donnell Kirkwood and David Cobb shared the carries. In the end, it was Cobb who stole the show by rushing for 103 yards on 20 carries, while Kirkwood — the team’s starting running back at the beginning of the year — had just 10 carries for 26 yards. Minnesota’s quarterbacks combined to add 53 rushing yards, but the Gophers failed to score a rushing touchdown in Saturday’s win. Still, Cobb’s performance was an encouraging one as he had Minnesota’s first 100-yard rushing game by a running back since Cobb gained 125 yards against San Jose State.
Passing offense: B-
The Gophers will once again have a decision to make at quarterback after sophomore Philip Nelson outplayed starter Mitch Leidner. Nelson was 8-for-11 for 112 yards and a touchdown (and, most importantly, no interceptions) after the redshirt freshman Leidner started the game 1-for-3 for 11 yards. Nelson replaced Leidner in Minnesota’s fifth series of the day and played the remainder of the game. Six different Gophers caught passes, but no player had more than two catches. Derrick Engel had Minnesota’s lone touchdown catch, a 29-yarder to tie the game at 7-7 in the second quarter. The Gophers’ passing numbers were far from gaudy, but Nelson was able to do enough to keep Minnesota’s offense moving.
Running defense: A
Northwestern was without its top running back, Venric Mark, which certainly gave Minnesota’s rushing defense a boost. The Wildcats gained just 94 yards on the ground in Saturday’s game, led by 58 yards from Stephen Buckley, who had a 3-yard rushing touchdown to open the scoring. Buckley’s longest run of the day was a 33-yarder, but Minnesota otherwise kept Northwestern’s running game in check. Treyvon Green added 34 yards on nine rushes. The Wildcats averaged 3.6 yards per carry, well below their season average.
Passing defense: B
Venric Mark wasn’t the only piece of Northwestern’s offense absent in Saturday’s game. Quarterback Kain Colter also did not play due to an injury. The Wildcats typically employ a two-quarterback system with Colter and Trevor Siemian, but it was up to Siemian to shoulder the load at quarterback against the Gophers. He attempted a season-high 46 passes and connected on 25 of them for 234 yards and a touchdown. But Minnesota also picked off Siemian twice, one of which was returned for a 24-yard touchdown by linebacker James Manuel. Defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman also managed to pick off Siemian and also had three pass breakups at the line of scrimmage.
Special teams: A-
Kicker Chris Hawthorne was 2-for-3 on field goal tries, missing a 44-yarder as time expired at the end of the first half. He connected on tries of 34 and 38 yards in the second half. Punter Peter Mortell was kept busy but had one of his best games of the season. His seven punts — tied for his season high — went for an average of 44.7 yards. Two of those punts were downed inside the 20-yard line. Neither team did much in the return game; the Gophers had just one kick return for 22 yards and only eight total yards on two punt returns. The absence of Mark hurt the Wildcats in the return game, too, as they had just 16 yards on two punt returns and 23 yards on their lone kickoff return.
Both teams needed this win after starting their respective Big Ten schedules with 0-2 records. In the end, Minnesota made enough plays to leave Evanston with the victory to improve to 5-2 on the season. The Gophers were far from perfect Saturday, but they took advantage of Northwestern’s mistakes en route to their first Big Ten win. Head coach Jerry Kill may have provided inspiration for the team, as he arrived during the game. Kill has been away from the team to receive treatment for his epilepsy but made it to Saturday’s game in time to watch his team win. Now the Gophers will try to ride this wave into this weekend’s game against Nebraska.