Minnesota defense led by Hageman, Manuel

Jack Satzinger

EVANSTON, Ill., — Ra’Shede Hageman said he watched Trevor Siemian’s eyes as he dropped back to throw. What he didn’t know was his head coach’s eyes were fixated on the play, too.

Jerry Kill, on leave for epilepsy treatment, surprised his team by driving to Evanston, Ill., for the game, viewing from the coaches’ box.

Hageman, a redshirt senior, jumped up, swatted the ball with his left arm and corralled it to intercept Siemian’s pass. He scampered into Northwestern territory until Siemian tripped him up.

There was a flag on the play, and an illegal block below the waist by Cameron Botticelli set Minnesota back to its own 37-yard line.

That interception shifted field position, and on Minnesota’s next possession, the Gophers looked to be in position to score before halftime. But Chris Hawthorne missed a 44-yard field goal as the first half ended to squander that chance.

Still, with the game tied 7-7 at the break, players received a boost as they trotted into the locker room.

Kill was waiting there to give his players — unaware of his presence at the game — a rousing speech.

“I was surprised — just to hear his voice again kind of motivated me,” Hageman said. “He’s definitely the toughest person I’ve ever met. He’s very prideful … [and] him coming to the locker room just kind of amped the whole team up.”

That was evident when the second half started.

Minnesota’s defense forced Northwestern to punt on its first two possessions, but the next series of defensive plays showed the impact Kill made on his players.

A relentless effort

Kill has preached all season that “young people are relentless” when faced with adversity, and his team proved it in the game against Northwestern.

A questionable pass interference call negated a Gophers touchdown pass that would have put Minnesota up 14-7. Instead, the Gophers were forced to punt the ball back to Northwestern.

Two plays later, senior linebacker James Manuel intercepted a Siemian pass and returned it for a touchdown to give Minnesota the 14-7 lead that had just been taken away.

Manuel said after watching film earlier in the week, he knew Siemian was going to throw to the right side of the field on the play. But Manuel said Kill’s speech at halftime helped him stay focused.

“He said, ‘Just go out there and play. Let your hair down,’” Manuel said. “He reminded us that we were prepared.”

After the scoop and score that put the Gophers in front 14-7, the defense forced another turnover on Northwestern’s next offensive play.

Redshirt sophomore Theiren Cockran sacked Siemian from behind, forced a fumble and recovered it.

Minnesota’s offense took over and converted a field goal to stretch its lead to 17-7.

Roomies making plays

Manuel’s interception means both he and roommate Hageman finished with one apiece, but Manuel gets bragging rights after running his back for a score.

“The fact that he got a pick six, I’m proud of him,” Hageman said with a grin. “But [people] don’t know I used to play tight end. So when I snagged that, it brought me back to my high school days. I’m 310 [pounds] now, and I could definitely tell I’m not like I used to be.”

Hageman said that while size may have hindered his speed, it allowed him to better pressure the quarterback — which led to three deflected passes at the line of scrimmage Saturday.

This was the first game all season in which Hageman looked like a potential first-round NFL draft pick.

If he continues his dominant presence up front, the team could become bowl-eligible for the second straight year.