>But, not before the Gophers Homecoming crowd nearly had reason to exit stunned.
From beginning to end, a paid throng of 37,729 was treated to exciting college football complete with trickery and a few surprises along the way.
When all the smoke cleared, Minnesota ran off the field elated with a 45-42 victory over Northwestern.
Following two straight years of being outmatched and outwitted by the Wildcats – losing by 12 points combined – the Gophers were the ones pulling everything together at the right time Thursday.
“I’m pleased we found a way to win,” coach Glen Mason said. “I’m ecstatic we won the game. I credit (Wildcats coach) Randy Walker and his staff. Obviously those kids are made of the right stuff.”
The win pushes Minnesota’s record to 6-1 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten. The team is now eligible for a postseason bowl game.
Ultimately, a 4:12 drive highlighted by a 22-yard Thomas Tapeh run on third and seven with just over 90 seconds remaining ran out the clock and lifted Minnesota to victory.
It helped heal the wound of a holding call earlier in the quarter on a long Tapeh run which could have sealed the deal.
“You never know what can happen, you can’t think about it,” Tapeh said of the plays. “You just have to stay optimistic.”
Tapeh and fellow back Terry Jackson II finished the game with a combined 415 yards on the ground.
Being positive was hard to do on the Minnesota sideline after a Jackson fumble early in the fourth quarter leading 45-27.
The drop completely switched the momentum of the game, which was largely in the Gophers’ favor.
After recovering Dan Nystrom’s opening onside kick, Minnesota wasted no time rumbling the 52 yards remaining to paydirt. Danny Upchurch scrambled 14 yards on his first carry of the season before Jackson took over with four straight carries and finished the drive with a five-yard touchdown run.
But before any running occurred at all, everyone was thrown for a loop when junior Benji Kamrath started under center for fellow classman Asad Abdul-Khaliq.
Hampered since the Sept. 28 Purdue game with an ankle ailment, Abdul-Khaliq was in uniform but missed the entire game.
Though he has taken the majority of reps in practice for more than a week, Kamrath threw sparingly, completing nine passes for 101 yards.
“Benji’s a great program player with a great attitude,” Mason said. “We told him early in the week if he did a good job in practice again this week we’d start him.”
The Wildcats (2-5, 0-3) countered Minnesota with a touchdown on their own first possession. Running back Jason Wright broke the plane with a two-yard run completing a 54-yard drive.
The two teams went scoreless for the remainder of the opening quarter, but Minnesota tight end Scooter Baugus opened the second with a bang, catching a five-yard score on the first play to make it a 14-7 Gophers’ lead.
Northwestern showed its first sign of brewing another upset before halftime. The Wildcats held a brief 21-14 lead following a pair of Noah Herron touchdown runs. But Minnesota wasn’t about to let another game slip away.
Antoine Burns’ 23-yard touchdown catch tied the game before Jermaine Mays blocked a punt and returned it to make it a 28-21 game before Tapeh and Jackson exchanged scores to open the game up.
“It was nice to start the running game early on,” Jackson said. “It was a great way to start the game.”
However, the Wildcats made it interesting by crossing the goal line three times in the final 13:37 of the game before the Gophers held strong and finally got the chance to give Northwestern a little payback.
“It’s good to be bowl eligible,” linebacker Ben West said. “But, none of us want to go to Detroit in the dead of winter. There is no letting up know.”
Detroit is host to the Motor City Bowl, the Big Ten’s seventh bowl tie-in. Minnesota is instead looking to head south for the postseason.