Ah, yes. Novembers in Ryan Field, where Big Ten football goes hand in hand with Canada Goose jackets, painful levels of wind chilland kids playing with Rubik’s Cubes while watching the Northwestern offense go three-and-out.
Despite a valiant second-half effort by fourth-string QB Andrew Marty, Northwestern (2-9, 0-8 B1G) ultimately fell to #10 Minnesota (10-1, 7-1 B1G) on Senior Day 38-22 on the back of four touchdowns from Minnesota QB Tanner Morgan and a rushing attack that racked up 217 yards.
The ‘Cats began the match in typically moribund fashion; with poor execution, a porous defense, and limited quarterbacking ability, Northwestern found itself in a quick 14-0 hole by the end of the first quarter. Hunter Johnson started in place of an injured Aidan Smith, and had limited effectiveness against a relentless Gopher defensive line. Before leaving the field after fumbling, Johnson went 0-2 with three sacks. His counterpart found the Northwestern defense a bit more to his liking. Tanner Morgan moved the ball at will against a defensive backfield offering lots of cushion, but also roped some beautiful throws to his receivers.
Minnesota dominated in all aspects of the game, and the ‘Cats were left seemingly unable to withstand any pressure from the Gophers’ senior-laden defensive front.
“We wanted to start fast,” said Coach Pat Fitzgerald. “We knew that [our first quarter performance] was not the plan by any stretch of the imagination. We had some one-man breakdowns. Defensively, we have to get off the field on third down. They didn’t do anything that we didn’t expect to see.”
Rashod Bateman scored two touchdowns in the first half while Shannon Brooks added a rushing score for Minnesota.
Alas, Northwestern ended the half on a high note. Joe Gaziano forced Morgan into an intentional grounding penalty in the endzone to put the ‘Cats on the board. The senior was credited with a sack, putting his career total of 28.5 and setting the Northwestern record for sacks in a career. Andrew Marty replaced Johnson in the second quarter, and the ‘Cats put forth their strongest drive of the game, capped off by a Jace James contested touchdown catch just shy of three minutes remaining in the half. Blake Gallagher picked off Morgan as Minnesota was driving to stifle the Gophers’ last scoring drive of the half. Despite the offensive onslaught of the first 20 minutes or so, the ‘Cats walked into the locker room down only two scores, 21-9.
Both teams traded scores to begin the second half. Morgan threw another dime to Bateman in the corner of the end zone for the receiver's third touchdown of the game. NU’s defensive backs could not stop the sophomore wideout in one-on-one coverage.
Andrew Marty responded with a 2-yard rush touchdown to cut Minnesota’s lead to 28-16. Under Marty, a typically lifeless Northwestern attack showed signs of improvement and consistency rarely seen this season.
Just as Northwestern, the master at the perpetual tease, appeared to make a game of the second half, Minnesota went on two long drives, ending with yet another contested touchdown catch by Tyler Johnson and a field goal to extend the Gopher lead to 38-16. Despite a late touchdown from Marty, Northwestern never seriously threatened again. Minnesota ran the ball with ease, draining the clock and advancing the ball late in the game.
“When they get going, it's tough to stop,” said Gaziano. “We didn't play as well as we could have getting push up front. We take those yards personally. It’s something we can improve on as we go into next week.
Marty played well in relief, going 8-10 for 144 total yards and two rushing touchdowns in the longest action of his career. The early offensive debacle, combined with Minnesota’s supremacy downfield and the defense breaking at key moments in the first half came back to haunt the ‘Cats down the stretch. Although this was not the outright steamrolling a la Ohio State, Minnesota held sizable advantages in total yardage (423 - 222), first downs (23 - 14), and third-down conversion percentage (82% - 47%).
After yet another disappointing loss, Northwestern travels to Illinois next Saturday for the ‘Cats final game of the season.