Gophers prevent second-half Wildcats comeback, win 29-12

Northwestern scored all of its points in the second half.

Senior quarterback Mitch Leidner slides to take a knee at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. The Gophers beat Northwestern 29-12.

Chris Dang

Senior quarterback Mitch Leidner slides to take a knee at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. The Gophers beat Northwestern 29-12.

by Jack White

 While Northwestern had more yards than Minnesota in the second half, that was not enough for victory.

The Gophers defense forced two fumbles and a season-high seven sacks as Minnesota (8-3) earned the 29-12 victory in its final home game.

“They played hard,” said head coach Tracy Claeys. “They held them to two of 15 on third down and one of four on fourth down. You do that, you are going to win some ballgames.”

Northwestern tried to initiate a comeback in the second half. The Wildcats had a 75-yard drive that ended with a Justin Jackson 4-yard touchdown run.

But Minnesota scored on its next drive when quarterback Mitch Leidner threw for a touchdown to wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky on a play-action pass.

It was Leidner’s first touchdown pass since the fourthgame of the season.

“We practiced all week long that [Wolitarsky] was gonna come down, bluff that guy and then block them and then shoot vertical there,” Leidner said. “So he was able to do a great job to locate the ball and make a great catch.”

Running back Shannon Brooks led the team in rushing with 73 yards on the ground. He also had 33 receiving yards.

Running back Rodney Smith added 32 rushing yards and touchdown.

“Both did a lot of really good things,” Leidner said. “I think the most important thing is that those guys have each other to take breathers here and there and then they’re always coming in fresh and ready to roll.”

Leidner also had a rushing touchdown, which helped Minnesota take a 29-12 lead in the game.

Minnesota scored 12 unanswered points to open up the game.

Kicker Emmit Carpenter missed the extra point on Minnesota’s first drive but made up for it with three consecutive field goals.

Minnesota earned its seventh targeting penalty of the season when defensive back Duke McGhee hit wide receiver Austin Carr helmet-to-helmet. The call was McGhee’s second targeting penalty of the season.

“It was a good call,” Claeys said. “I don’t disagree with the call at all. He knows better than that.”

Defensive tackle Steven Richardson shined with two sacks against the Wildcats.

Linebacker Blake Cashman also had two sacks in the game. Cashman amassed 10 tackles, which was a career high, and also forced his first-ever fumble.

Wide receiver Rashad Still accounted for several big plays over the course of the game.

Still had a 62-yard reception in the first half. He also returned an onside kick to the Wildcats’ 15-yard line.

Leidner said the victory, which happened on Senior Day, was huge.

“[Northwestern was a] really tough opponent,” he said. “[They’re a] really well-coached football team. A lot of respect for [head coach Pat Fitzgerald] over there and their program.”

Minnesota earned its fifth Big Ten victory of the season after starting off conference play with two losses.

Minnesota will play Wisconsin in a battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. The Badgers have not lost the rivalry game since 2003.

Leidner said a victory against Wisconsin would be a great way to top off the year.

“I know it’s really important to a lot of guys on this team,” he said. “We get another tough, physical football game like it was tonight.”