For the second consecutive week, Northwestern's defense looked to be on the ropes in the fourth quarter, trying to protect a lead on the road.
This time, the Wildcats stood their ground.
In a sloppy game where Northwestern's offense started fast on Saturday and then disappeared, the defense stepped up in the clutch and prevented Minnesota from scoring the potential game-tying touchdown. Northwestern survived 21-13 to improve to 6-1, becoming bowl-eligible for the sixth consecutive season. Minnesota (4-2, 0-2 Big Ten) dropped its second straight Legends Division game and remains two wins away from bowl eligibility.
Northwestern had no pass rush to speak of last week at Penn State, but the front four stepped up in the fourth quarter. Defensive end Tyler Scott had a pair of sacks, including a forced fumble on the game's final play, and fellow end Quentin Williams also stepped up with a pass deflection that led to an interception. Northwestern gave up more yards (327-275) and first downs (21-13) but not points.
It could have been a different ending had Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray remained healthy. Gray returned from a high-ankle sprain that had kept him out two games and performed well in the first half, but he re-injured his left knee on a third-quarter run and didn't return. Max Shortell never really got in a rhythm, starting the game but exiting quickly for Gray before re-entering in the second half. He missed several open receivers, including Isaac Fruechte in the end zone, and held the ball way too long in crunch time.
The game looked like a shootout early, as Northwestern scored on the first play from scrimmage on a Venric Mark touchdown run after Minnesota fumbled the opening kickoff. Mark was masterful once again, racking up 151 rush yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries in the first half. Northwestern scored 21 points in the first 18 minutes but then began stumbling, committing a host of penalties and curious play calls. The quarterback rotation that worked well earlier in the season seemed to fizzle Saturday, as Northwestern couldn't convert third downs (1-for-9), its former trademark, and offensive coordinator Mick McCall didn't trust Kain Colter on any downfield throws. Colter certainly looked like the better option Saturday, going 10-for-10 on pass attempts and adding 26 rush yards and a touchdown.
Mark finished with 182 rush yards on 20 carries.
Northwestern definitely went conservative at the end, taking a delay of game penalty on third down, clearly concerned about the weather. While the approach paid off against a Minnesota team that made too many mistakes, it likely will cost the Wildcats down the line.
It rained for most of the game, and the outcome came down to key mistakes. Minnesota had two first-half turnovers that Northwestern converted for touchdowns. The Wildcats, while committing an uncharacteristic 11 penalties, didn't have a turnover.
Northwestern remains very much alive in the Legends Division race and returns home for two division contests (Nebraska and Iowa). The Wildcats need to be a lot better than they were Saturday but can take some positives with Mark and the defense.
Minnesota is a different team with Gray on the field and hopes the senior can return for next week's rivalry game at Wisconsin.