Gophers stifle Kafka when it counts

Key turnovers prevent another heartbreaker at the hands of the Northwestern quarterback.

Marco LaNave

EVANSTON, Ill. âÄî When the Gophers prepared for SaturdayâÄôs game at Northwestern, they knew they had to stop WildcatsâÄô senior quarterback Mike Kafka . He can run: he rushed for 217 yards against the Gophers last year, leading Northwestern to a 24-17 win in MinnesotaâÄôs homecoming game . He can pass: he completed 35 of 42 passes for 390 yards and three touchdowns at Syracuse on Sept. 19. He also caught a touchdown pass and ran for another score . âÄúWe knew that we were going to have our hands full all day,âÄù Gophers head coach Tim Brewster said after the GophersâÄô 35-24 win at Ryan Field on Saturday. Kafka completed 32 of 47 passes for 309 yards and two touchdowns Saturday, but breaks and timely plays by the Gophers saved the defense from bearing the blame for another loss to the Kafka-led Wildcats. Kafka was mechanical on the first drive for Northwestern, completing eight of nine passes for 54 yards to set up a field goal. He also completed four of five passes in leading the Wildcats to within 14-10 with 4:27 remaining in the second quarter. At times, Kafka seemed too accurate: his receivers dropped a couple of perfectly-thrown passes that hit their hands. Nevertheless, he looked poised to lift Northwestern into a halftime lead when he completed three passes for 42 yards to lead the Wildcats to MinnesotaâÄôs 20-yard line. Time for stop number one. On third and eight, Kafka threw toward the goal line, but junior safety Kim Royston intercepted the pass at the Minnesota 2-yard line to preserve the lead with 49 seconds remaining in the half. âÄúThat was my fault on that one, and just a poor decision,âÄù Kafka said. Kafka rebounded by passing for 140 yards in two third-quarter scoring drives. He looked nearly invincible when he completed a fourth-down touchdown pass to give the Wildcats a 24-21 lead with six seconds to go in the third quarter. Although Minnesota reclaimed a 28-24 lead, it seemed shaky because the Gophers defense had been picked apart on the last two drives. Time for stop number two. After one first down, the Wildcats stalled, as the Gophers finally made Kafka uncomfortable in the pocket. âÄúTowards the end of the game, they started pressuring a lot more,âÄù Kafka said. âÄúI thought we handled it well, weâÄôve just got to go make more plays.âÄù Kafka had to wait more than four minutes for another opportunity, but when he had the ball with 2:36 to play, he had plenty of options. He had completed passes to nine different teammates. Seven Wildcats had at least three receptions. âÄúThey do their job, they get open, and do what the concepts are asking them to do,âÄù Kafka said of his receivers. âÄúWeâÄôve just got to deliver the ball âÄî pitch and catch.âÄù The GophersâÄô task was to disrupt that connection, which had succeeded all day. Time for stop number three. On third and three at the Northwestern 17, Kafka was hit in the backfield by senior defensive end Cedric McKinley , who forced and recovered a fumble at the Northwestern 3-yard line. âÄúRight when I was about to throw, it just got stripped out,âÄù Kafka said. The Gophers capitalized with a touchdown. On the first play of the next drive, redshirt freshman defensive end D.L. Wilhite forced and recovered another Kafka fumble, adding a sour end to the quarterbackâÄôs otherwise stellar performance. âÄúI thought MikeâÄôs play gave us a chance to win,âÄù Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. âÄúWeâÄôve just got to take care of the football in the red zone.âÄù On both of KafkaâÄôs fumbles, Minnesota applied the pressure it had failed to muster for most of three and a half quarters and covered the receivers it could not corral earlier in the game. âÄú[The] defensive line really came up big there in the last two drives,âÄù said senior linebacker Nate Triplett , who tied for the team lead with 10 tackles. âÄú[Our] coverage kept the ball in [KafkaâÄôs] hands longer, and they were able to get to the ball, just like we practice every day.âÄù The execution resulted from some preparation, though. âÄúWe just kind of said, âÄòEveryone stay in your position, everyone do your job, and, when it comes down to it, make the plays,âÄô âÄù Triplett said. And a few plays made the difference Saturday.