EVANSTON, Ill.,– Early on in Saturday’s game, the Gophers defense seemingly had two offenses ganging up on them.
The ineptitude of the Minnesota offense allowed the Northwestern unit to start two of its first three positions well inside Gopher territory.
But the resilient defense stood up well in the face of the unexpected field position, setting the tone in the No. 25 Gophers’ 33-14 win.
The Wildcats commenced their first drive from the Minnesota 38-yard line. On the third play from scrimmage, quarterback Nick Kreinbrink was intercepted by Jimmy Wyrick. The backup cornerback’s 54-yard return would set up Minnesota’s first touchdown.
The pass was one of five consecutive that Northwestern opened the game with. Coach Randy Walker said he wanted to attempt to get the run-focused Gophers defense to loosen up their scheme.
“We made a decision that we weren’t going to come out of the blocks and just try to run the football,” Walker said. “We wanted to come out throwing, make some shots. Obviously, it didn’t work out the way we wanted. It cost us some points and turnovers.”
An attempt to get the ground game going also proved fruitless. On Northwestern’s second and third drives, the ball was given to running back Damien Anderson three times and each time he was tackled for a loss.
Later in the first quarter, the Wildcats were finally able to give the Gophers defense some fits when Zak Kustok took over for Kreinbrink as quarterback. Kustok’s appearance went unnoticed by linebacker Ben Mezera.
“Uh…they made a quarterback change?,” asked Mezera. “I really didn’t even know.” The two would have ample opportunity to get acquainted, however, and it was Kustok that said the initial hellos.
Kustok hooked up with receiver Teddy Johnson on a 49-yard touchdown pass that turned the beaten Wyrick from the toast of the Gophers defense to just toast.
On Northwestern’s first drive of the second half, Kustok again got a pass over the heads of the Gophers secondary for a 46-yard pass to receiver Sam Simmons. The drive ended three plays later with Kustok running 11-yards for a touchdown.
The remainder of the afternoon, Kustok would lead the option offense with his arm and his legs. In the process, Kustok turned the heads of Gophers defenders.
“That (Kustok) was talented,” linebacker Sean Hoffman said. “He ran the ball well. I though he was a tough kid, one of the toughest quarterbacks we’ve faced. You couldn’t bring him down with arm tackles. He’s definitely competitive.”
But early in the fourth quarter, with the Gophers ahead 24-14, it was Mezera who made his presence known as he stormed the Wildcats backfield and jarred the ball loose from Kustok with a sack. The ensuing offensive touchdown made the score 31-14, and the sound of the Minnesota team’s buses firing up could be heard through out the stadium.
Mezera’s trio of sacks — which moved him into second on the Minnesota all-time list with 14 — was one of the several key individual performances Saturday. Hoffman registered 12 tackles, five of which were for 11 yards in losses and one for a one-yard sack, and strong safety Tyrone Carter led the team with 13 tackles.
The defense would account for six turnovers and seven sacks, the latter being a number that is likely to cause Walker bouts of insomnia this week.
“We had as good of protection schemes called as we could get,” Walker said. “And the fact that they were getting so much pressure is really alarming.
“They didn’t reinvent a blitz or come up with something. It’s stuff we practiced and prepared for, we were just flat getting whipped. In some of those one-on-one match-ups we just didn’t get it done, quite frankly, up front.”
The Gophers defense was able to get it done Saturday, to help the team to their first Big Ten road win since 1994. And perhaps more importantly — move the team one step closer to an elusive bowl game appearance.
David La Vaque covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]