5 Things: Gophers defense impresses vs. Wildcats

Nothing had gone the way of the University of Minnesota football team this year in Big Ten Conference play. But Northwestern was facing the same situation as the two teams played Saturday afternoon.

Minnesota (5-2, 1-2 Big Ten) turned things around though in a matchup of reeling teams with a strong 20-17 win on the road Saturday, led by the Gophers’ defense.

Minnesota kept itself in the hunt to be bowl-eligible and stays ahead of the Wildcats (4-3, 0-3 Big Ten) in the Legends Division.

Here are five takeaways from the Gophers’ win at Northwestern:

1. Coach Jerry Kill can’t stay away

Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys was the acting head coach for Minnesota on Saturday after Jerry Kill had taken a leave of absence to focus on treatment for his epilepsy. Claeys was a late fill-in as the interim head coach for Minnesota’s last game after Kill suffered another seizure and wasn’t with the team at Michigan, and Claeys coached from the press box. Claeys moved to the sideline for Saturday’s game.

No one expected Claeys and Kill to change spots. Midway through the game, it was discovered Kill was with the team in Evanston, Ill., and he was seen on camera from the coaches’ box. Kill wasn’t there in a coaching capacity, but he did speak with the team at halftime. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported Kill’s wife, Rebecca, had driven Kill to the game separate of the team. Reports said he couldn’t stand to be away from the team for another game.

Kill was out for an indefinite period when he left to seek epilepsy treatment. His presence Saturday brings the question of his return being sooner rather than later.

2. Round and round they go on the quarterback carousel

Mitch Leidner earned his second straight start for the Gophers at quarterback after the starter had flip-flopped between Leidner and Philip Nelson the past three games. The Minnesota offense started slow with Leidner at the helm and then Nelson entered for one drive and led the Gophers to their first touchdown. The result was more Nelson on Saturday than originally expected.

Minnesota continued to rotate Leidner and Nelson, but Nelson was effective in the passing game and played the majority of snaps in the second half. Northwestern had given up 279 passing yards a game coming in and the Gophers were able to come up with a few big plays through the air. Nelson was 8-of-11 passing with a 29-yard touchdown pass to receiver Derrick Engel. Nelson had another touchdown pass taken away on a questionable offensive pass-interference call.

Meanwhile, Leidner was 1-of-3 passing for just 11 yards. The offensive plays seemed much different with the two quarterbacks in. The Gophers were more run-based during Leidner’s snaps. Leidner ran seven times for 27 yards. Nelson added nine carries for 26 yards. Nelson’s efficiency maybe leads to another starting quarterback change for next week’s home game against Nebraska. If nothing else, the rotation likely continues.

3. Ra’Shede Hageman is very athletic for a defensive lineman

Hageman, the Gophers’ senior defensive lineman, made one of the biggest plays Saturday and showed the athleticism that could make him a first-round pick in the NFL. Hageman is a unique player, athletic and agile at 6-foot-6 and 311 pounds.

With Northwestern in Minnesota territory, Hageman tipped a pass and ended up catching it himself for an interception. The former tight end showed some of his receiving skills. It was one of four tipped passes for Hageman on the day. Hageman is the type of athletic defensive lineman that could find his way into the pros and some are predicting he makes his way into the first round of next year’s NFL Draft.

4. Defense adjusts the scoring

Northwestern also rotated quarterbacks this season, but Kain Colter was held out of Saturday’s game with an injury so Trevor Siemian played the entire game. The Wildcats were also without one of their running backs in Venric Marc. Minnesota took advantage by holding Northwestern to 94 yards rushing as a team, scored on defense and disrupted Siemian.

Hageman had the early interception and the momentum really turned in the second half when Gophers linebacker James Manuel intercepted a Siemian pass and returned it 24 yards for a touchdown. On the next offensive play for Northwestern, defensive lineman Theiren Cockran had a strip-sack of Siemian and recovered the fumble. Siemian did have a late touchdown pass to Tony Jones, but the Gophers applied plenty of pressure with three sacks and didn’t allow Siemian — the better passer out of the Wildcats’ two quarterbacks — to not find any rhythm. The Gophers had allowed 255.5 passing yards a game this season, which was second from the bottom in the Big Ten.

5. Minnesota is able to run in the Big Ten

The Gophers relied on their running game offensively in their four non-conference games. But, in two Big Ten games against Iowa and Michigan, Minnesota was held to 83 rushing yards per game, which was ninth in the conference. The Gophers were averaging just 2.4 yards per rush in the Big Ten.

But Northwestern was also 10th in run defense coming in and Nelson’s passing opened up the running lanes for David Cobb of Minnesota on Sunday. The Gophers ran for 176 yards as a team. Cobb had run for 42 total yards against Iowa and Michigan. Saturday he had 20 carries for 103 yards, the second highest total of his Minnesota career. He had 25 carries for 125 yards against San Jose State before Big Ten play started.

Cobb had a long run of 24 yards Saturday and the Gophers were able to control the ball in the second half and play with the lead. Minnesota had 15 plays for 34 yards on four first-quarter drives, but Cobb got going in the second quarter with Nelson at quarterback and the Gophers led 35 minutes, 15 seconds to 24:45 in time of possession. Donnell Kirkwood added 10 carries for 26 yards.

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