EVANSTON, Ill. …

Todd Zolecki

EVANSTON, Ill. — Somewhere on Northwestern’s sideline Saturday, kicker Brian Gowins must have closed his eyes, prayed and held his breath.
The Wildcats, nursing a two-point lead against the Gophers football team, faced an upset loss in front of 35,848 fans at Dyche Stadium in the game’s closing seconds.
And all of the purple-clad fans were ready to hold Gowins responsible for the game if Minnesota would somehow engineer a miraculous comeback.
It didn’t happen. Time ran out and the Wildcats held on to win, 26-24. Somewhere on that sideline Gowins could be heard letting out a deep sigh of relief.
Gowins, last week’s hero in a 17-16 come-from-behind victory against Michigan, missed three field goals and an extra-point attempt against Minnesota. In one week he went from a sure thing to a bigger liability than Evel Knievel driving a new Harley Davidson.
“I had a bad day,” Gowins said. “That’s about all I have to say. Those were all my fault.”
But the No. 15 Wildcats survived more than just Gowins’ mistakes. They also weathered an on-side kick and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown, both by Minnesota.
Add those up and the Gophers found themselves in position to win. Wildcats coach Gary Barnett wasn’t surprised.
“I told our players that (Minnesota) goes down to the last series in every game,” he said.
“We got a punt blocked for a touchdown after we called a timeout to make sure that the protections were square. And then you tell your receiving team they are going to kick an on-side kick right here, and then they do it and you don’t recover. It’s tough.”
The Northwestern punt, blocked by Gophers special teams player Jimmy Wyrick, was returned by Lee Hutton for a touchdown at the end of the third quarter. The score brought the Gophers back into the game, down 26-18 after a successful two-point conversion, and gave them new life.
Minnesota wide receiver Ryan Thelwell then caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from Cory Sauter in the fourth quarter to bring it within two.
Suddenly, the Gophers saw some light. The opportunity to win was there.
“We’re not a good team at putting people away when we have to be,” Wildcats defensive lineman Matt Rice said.
But Northwestern held on. They ran 7:01 off the clock with a long drive in the fourth quarter. Gowins ended it with an unsuccessful 30-yard field goal try. The Gophers had 1:29 to mount a comeback.
That wasn’t enough time.
“In the end, what I’m going to revel in and what I’m going to appreciate is what our offense put together in the fourth quarter,” Barnett said. “That had to happen in order for us to win. The momentum had definitely shifted to the other side on that last drive.”
With the victory, Northwestern (5-1, 2-0 Big Ten) remained in position to defend its conference title. Minnesota (3-2, 0-2), on the other hand, is winless in the Big Ten. Both losses were by a combined five points.
The Wildcats were all smiles in the postgame press conference. Darnell Autry ran for 189 yards, becoming the school’s all-time leading rusher. Quarterback Steve Schnur played solid all game, putting Minnesota in a 23-0 hole in the first half. And of course, Gowins, who pulled through a miserable day, didn’t have to fear being assaulted by angry Wildcats fans outside the stadium.
“Nobody’s weak in the Big Ten,” Autry said. “You’re going to play a full game. “It takes a lot of character to be able to overcome them being fired up in the second half.”
Northwestern enjoyed this win. Minnesota felt the opposite: This loss hurt.
Gophers coach Jim Wacker left the locker room appearing upset with the loss. He came so close two weeks in a row and had nothing to show for it.