Any one of the 105 players on Minnesota’s football roster might want to consider mailing Northwestern cornerback Jeff Backes a thank-you card this week.
The sophomore’s seemingly innocent misstep was just the break the 17th-ranked Gophers needed to keep its undefeated season from taking a major detour Saturday afternoon.
With Northwestern leading 14-0 early in the second quarter and the Gophers facing third-and-seven from their own four-yard line, Minnesota quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq spotted wide receiver Jared Ellerson streaking down the sideline in single coverage.
Backes, who covered Ellerson on the play, slipped and fell to the Ryan Field grass moments before Abdul-Khaliq’s pass dropped into the arms of Ellerson, who ran uncontested for a 96-yard score.
With that one play, the Gophers (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) seized command of a game veering dangerously out of control.
“Our backs were against the wall and that play kind of gave us our spark,” said Abdul-Khaliq. “We never looked back after that.”
Ignited by Ellerson’s reception – also the longest pass play in school history – a Minnesota offense without a first down to that point added two more touchdowns in the next 6:17 to spearhead a 42-17 come-from-behind win.
Ellerson’s record-setting reception couldn’t have come at a better time for the Gophers, who awakened for the final three quarters after suffering through a nightmarish opening period.
Northwestern (2-4, 0-2) dominated the game in all aspects during the first quarter, finding the end zone on its first two possessions and out-gaining the highest-scoring team in the Big Ten 146-8 in total yards.
Running back Jason Wright and quarterback Brett Basanez both scored rushing touchdowns for the Wildcats during the stretch.
“That was the worst quarter of football – from my perspective – that I have ever been associated with as a coach,” Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. “But the positive thing is that we didn’t panic, and no one started pointing fingers. We came together and didn’t lose faith. We preach it all the time that football is a 60-minute game.”
Despite the slow start, Abdul-Khaliq finished with one of the best statistical games of his career going 12-of-17 for 331 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Ellerson, who caught an 82-yard touchdown on the second play after halftime to increase Minnesota’s lead to 28-17, finished the game with four catches for 189 yards and two scores. He also caught a swing pass (officially ruled as a rush) that gained 14 yards and drew a pass interference penalty later in the game.
But Abdul-Khaliq and Ellerson were just two members of the Minnesota passing game that had a breakout performance after practically gathering dust in the season’s first five weeks.
Both wide receiver Aaron Hosack (74 yards) and tight end Ben Utecht (64) had touchdown receptions to go with solid outings.
Heading into Saturday’s game in Evanston, Abdul-Khaliq had thrown the fewest passes of any starting quarterback in the Big Ten, largely because Minnesota has made a habit of getting early leads and then relying on its running game.
But the passing attack had the necessary impetus after the Wildcats jumped out to a 14-0 advantage and forced Minnesota to beat them with the pass by stacking defenders at the line of scrimmage.
“We knew we’re going to have to throw the ball because they were putting eight, nine people in the box to stop the run,” Ellerson said. “They were successful at that in the first quarter, but things just started opening up and rolling for us.”
The Gophers responded to the Wildcats’ defensive scheme by throwing the ball down the field, resulting in a plethora of big plays.
Besides Utecht’s six-yard touchdown catch, which gave Minnesota a 21-17 lead late in the first half, each of the Gophers’ other five touchdowns were plays of at least 30 yards.
“We wanted to stop the run,” Northwestern coach Randy Walker said. “We had a lot of respect, however, for their ability to throw the football, and they made some big shots today.”
Minnesota running back Marion Barber III scored two touchdowns on separate 31-yard option plays to increase his nation-leading total to 13 scores on the season. Barber finished with 77 yards of the team’s 241 rushing yards.
Thomas Tapeh added 81 yards rushing, all in the second half. Terry Jackson II and Laurence Maroney combined for 12 carries in a mop-up role during the fourth quarter.
The Gophers will play four of their next five games in the Metrodome, beginning with their biggest challenge of the season Friday night against No. 20 Michigan.