MINNEAPOLIS -- Dan Persa passed for 309 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 99 yards to make up for two red-zone turnovers, leading Northwestern's rally past Minnesota Saturday for a 29-28 victory.
Persa lost a fumble at the Minnesota 6 in the first quarter and was intercepted in the third quarter at the 11, helping the Gophers (1-4, 0-1 Big Ten) stay in the game and grab an eight-point lead early in the fourth quarter on Eric Lair's second touchdown catch.
But the Wildcats (5-0, 1-0) came right back, pulling within six on a third-down pass from Persa to Jeremy Ebert. Persa was hit as he threw a jump ball in the air, and Ebert came down with it despite tight coverage by Ryan Collado with 8:17 left. The 2-point conversion failed, but Stefan Demos made up for an earlier missed extra point by kicking a 27-yard field goal with 2:07 remaining to give Northwestern the lead back.
Persa, who completed 23 of 30 passes, set up the go-ahead score by scrambling for 22 yards on third-and-6 at the Minnesota 46 when pressure prompted him to move forward in the pocket, then break left and up the seam.
The Wildcats are 10-3 on the road since the start of the 2008 season.
DeLeon Eskridge rushed 22 times for 119 yards for the Gophers, who lost their first four home games of the season for the first time since 1983. They reached the Northwestern 39 with 52 seconds left when Adam Weber perfectly executed a bootleg run on fourth-and-3, but the Gophers were again stymied by curious play calling and disorganization during a critical drive.
Duane Bennett was dropped for a 1-yard loss immediately after Weber's big run, a delayed inside handoff that wasted time as well. The Gophers couldn't get into field-goal range, and Weber's fourth-down-desperation throw under pressure was tipped and intercepted by Ben Johnson to seal it.
These teams have engaged in several wild, high-scoring games over the last decade, with this the fourth straight meeting decided in the fourth quarter or later. This was more of the same.
Mostly going without a huddle in the spread formation, Northwestern used their Persa-led option attack to score touchdowns on two of their first three drives with remarkable ease: four plays and 67 yards for one and five and 74 for the other.
The problem for the Wildcats was they fumbled on their other possession, when Brandon Kirksey made a diving strip on Venric Mark during an end-around run to give the Gophers the ball at the Northwestern 46 to set up a wide-open pass by Weber to Bennett up the sideline for a 38-yard score. Bennett also threw for a touchdown in the first quarter.
The Gophers played good defense in the second quarter, pursuing Persa from the proper angles and finishing their tackles better than they did in September. They took a 21-14 lead into the locker room after Eskridge's 4-yard charge into the end zone with 59 seconds left, raising their arms to encourage the crowd after the Wildcats found themselves trailing for the first time all year.
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