Minnesota Beats Northwestern 29-12 in Home Finale
November 19, 2016

Pressure on the quarterback and big stops were the keys to Minnesota beating Northwestern 29-12 in its final home game. The Gophers sacked Clayton Thorson seven times and shut the Wildcats down on third- and fourth-down attempts and two-point conversions.

Sophomore Blake Cashman, a walk-on as a linebacker, led the Gophers with 10 tackles—9 of them unassisted—and 2 sacks. Northwestern converted only 2 of 15 third-down plays, was 1 of 4 on fourth down, and was unsuccessful on both its two-point tries.

The cold and wind at U. S. Bank Stadium seemed to favor the Gophers, who held Thorson to 106 yards passing in the first half while building a 12-0 lead.

Minnesota scored on the opening possession, driving 80 yards on 7 plays with Rodney Smith following the block of tackle guard Vincent Calhoun for a 5-yard touchdown. Emmit Carpenter was wide to the right with the point-after attempt, but Carpenter later connected on field goals of 19 and 42 yards.

After the Gophers’ touchdown, the teams exchanged the ball the rest of the quarter, one coming on Cashman’s sack of Thorson at midfield, which also forced a fumble, recovered by the Gophers’ Steven Richardson. “He’s a man possessed,” said Richardson of Cashman after the game.

The Wildcats drove to the Minnesota 27 the next time they had the ball and faced a fourth-and-six. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has been in the habit of going for it on fourth down, especially in that territory, as kicker Jack Mitchell’s maximum range has been barely beyond 40 yards. However, the wind was behind Mitchell, but it didn’t help as he missed a 44-yard attempt.

After Carpenter gave the Gophers a 9-0 lead, Northwestern drove to the Gophers’ 16, and this time Fitzgerald decided to try for the first down on fourth-and-one. Linebacker Jack Lynn got into the backfield and stuffed Justin Jackson for a three-yard loss with 3:01 left in the half.

Minnesota couldn’t advance the ball, and Ryan Santoso was able to bounce a punt to the Northwestern 25. Richardson sacked Thorson on the second play and forced another fumble, recovered by Minnesota’s Julian Huff on the 30 yard line. Carpenter connected on his second field goal in the final minute of the half. (The six-foot Richardson, a native of Chicago, said he got special pleasure out of beating Northwestern, a team that had little interest in recruiting him because the coaches thought he was too short.)

A 30-yard field goal by Carpenter midway through the third quarter made the score 15-0.

The Wildcats then mounted a scoring drive, but it was costly. Northwestern’s star receiver, Austin Carr, was sandwiched between two defenders on a pass attempt, and Duke McGhee was called for targeting, resulting in a 15-yard penalty and McGhee’s ejection. Although coaches often indicate displeasure with such calls, Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys said he couldn’t disagree with this one.

While McGhee was gone, Carr had to be helped off the field and didn’t return. He had caught 4 passes for 56 yards and had only 1 more, for 12 yards, before leaving the game. The Wildcats kept moving, converting on a fourth and five from the Minnesota 39 and eventually reached the end zone on a four-yard run by Jackson. Jackson was then stopped on a two-point conversion.

Northwestern’s momentum appeared to pick up on the ensuing kickoff when all-conference linebacker Anthony Walker stripped Jalen Myrick of the ball and recovered it himself on the Minnesota 22. The Wildcats got to the 13, but Thorson’s pass on fourth and one was incomplete.

In the fourth quarter the Gophers chewed up nearly six-and-a-half minutes with a 12 play drive covering 80 yards, capping it with a 9-yard pass from Leidner to Drew Wolitarsky, Leidner’s first touchdown pass after going five games without one. Carpenter’s point-after put the Gophers ahead 22-6.

The Wildcats responded with a touchdown but, with under three minutes to play, had no choice but to try for two. Thorson’s pass was incomplete.

Rashad Still nearly returned an onside kick 30 yards to the Northwestern 15, and Leidner, on the second play, ran 12 yards for a touchdown.

Although the Gophers scored 29 points, Claeys said the offense could have played better, citing inconsistency, missed blocks, and dropped passes.

Minnesota will need its best on both sides of the ball next week at Wisconsin, but, for now, the team is celebrating its eighth win of the season and for upping its Big Ten record to 5-3.

Gopher Holes: Mitch Leidner took a pair of knees to end the game, and took the snap from his brother, junior Matt Leidner, who was inserted for the final two plays.

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