Gophers dodge scare from Wildcats

After trailing 24-21, the Gophers scored 14 unanswered points to leave Evanston with a win.

Gophers dodge scare from Wildcats

Austin Cumblad

EVANSTON, Ill. âÄì The âÄúhere we go againâÄù moment came in the third quarter. Having just traded scoring drives, Minnesota led Northwestern 21-17 with the ball on its own 45-yard line. But instead of replicating the well-balanced 78-yard drive which finished with a touchdown, junior quarterback Adam Weber threw three straight incompletions, the Gophers punted and the Wildcats took a 24-21 lead four minutes later when Brendan Mitchell made a 13-yard touchdown catch on fourth-and-2. It was the third quarter when things began to go wrong the previous time Minnesota was in Evanston. Were the Gophers headed towards a third-straight heartbreak at the hands of Northwestern? Not this time. Not on this Saturday. On this Saturday, Minnesota (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) took the ball at the start of the fourth quarter, marched 83 yards and sophomore running back Duane Bennett punched in his third touchdown of the game to give the Gophers a lead they would not relinquish . Minnesota won its first Big Ten opener since 2005 and beat the Wildcats, 35-24, for the first time in its past three tries. âÄúWe didnâÄôt dwell on the last two years,âÄù head coach Tim Brewster said after the game, referring to MinnesotaâÄôs recent late-game losses to Northwestern (2-2, 0-1). âÄúThat was never a thought in our mind. The only thought in our mind was to play well today and win today. This yearâÄôs a whole new year; this is a whole new football team, and weâÄôre 1-0 in the Big Ten.âÄù Entering Saturday, Minnesota was ranked 109th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing with 85.7 yards per game . Against the Wildcats, the Gophers gained 166 yards, led by BennettâÄôs 21 carries for 89 yards and three scores. Redshirt freshman running back Kevin Whaley and true freshman quarterback MarQueis Gray added a combined 64 yards , along with a dimension opposing defenses have seen little of this season. Gray still has yet to attempt a pass, but his role in MinnesotaâÄôs offense has increased each week. He caught a touchdown pass from wide receiver Eric Decker against California; this week, Gray rushed five times for 33 yards. âÄúWe try to use him in many different ways, and heâÄôs going to click,âÄù Bennett said. âÄúWe know he can run.âÄù And with the ground attack as the catalyst, the Gophers put together their most consistent game of the season offensively. Weber completed 15-of-26 for 186 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Decker, who caught eight passes for 84 yards . âÄúOnce we established the running game, it brought the safeties down, put more guys in the box and it just opened plays for us in the passing game,âÄù Decker said. âÄúWe took advantage of it and we did a good job executing.âÄù Decker again led MinnesotaâÄôs receiving corps, but sophomore Brandon GreenâÄôs two receptions were arguably the most critical. Quiet for three-plus quarters, the Chicago native picked the right time to assert himself, snagging 27-yard and 10-yard passes on consecutive third downs during the GophersâÄô go-ahead scoring drive . âÄúThird down weâÄôre just going to get in the huddle and just call a formation and tell [Green] to get open because heâÄôs come up big numerous times this year,âÄù Decker said. Following GreenâÄôs lead, the defense came up big just minutes later. Still trailing by four, Northwestern took over at its own 10 with 2:36 remaining. On the third play of the drive, senior defensive end Cedric McKinley knocked the ball from Wildcats quarterback Mike Kafka and smothered it on the 3-yard line. From there, a simple lob from Weber to Decker put the game out of reach. For good measure, McKinleyâÄôs fellow defensive end D.L. Wilhite, a true freshman, forced and recovered another Kafka fumble on the first play of the following drive. Also, junior safety Kim Royston picked off a pass on the GophersâÄô 2-yard line late in the second quarter when it appeared Northwestern might take the lead just before halftime. âÄúThe game was on the line and our defense showed up big,âÄù Brewster said. The turnovers are likely to overshadow an otherwise productive day for Kafka. He threw for 309 yards and two touchdowns on 32-of-47 passing, generally picking apart MinnesotaâÄôs secondary and hitting nine different targets as opposed to WeberâÄôs three. But like Brewster said, when the game was on the line, it was his defense that made the big plays. âÄúWeâÄôre a very battle-tested football team at this point,âÄù Brewster said. âÄúI think it certainly helps. When youâÄôre in a battle like we were today, to have been in that fight before is very positive.âÄù