They took possession at their own 14 and with less than a minute to play. But Gophers coach Tim Brewster wasn’t interested in overtime. He wanted to win the game in regulation.
They pushed it out to the 26, but a first-down pass skipped off the hands of Eric Decker and into the hands of Northwestern’s Brendan Smith, who returned it 48 yards for the game-winning score.
Suddenly, the Gophers’ faint Rose Bowl hopes had officially ended. So did Minnesota’s three-game winning streak. Suddenly, the Gophers (7-2, 3-2) went from Rose Bowl contenders to just another team in a fourth-place log jam.
“It’s my fault,” said Decker, who admirably played through a painful ankle sprain in the second half that left him limping noticeably. Brewster would probably dispute Decker’s claim, but he wasn’t about to second-guess going for the victory instead of taking a knee and playing for overtime.
“We were trying to score,” Brewster said. “We’re going to take an aggressive nature to what we do. That’s who I am. The play was there, the ball was tipped and got intercepted. It’s unfortunate that it went back for a touchdown.”
The Gophers should be favored in each of their last three games and still have an excellent chance at qualifying for a New Year’s Day game. But the loss to Northwestern, on a day backup quarterback Mike Kafka ran for 217 yards, will sting for quite some time.
“We definitely had Rose Bowl intentions,” linebacker Lee Campbell said, “and intentions of winning out.”
WR Eric Decker sprained his ankle in the third quarter, but gutted through the rest of the game despite limping noticeably. He was spotted after the game wearing a boot on his left foot.
Freshman WR Xzavian Brandon did not dress because of an undisclosed injury.
QB Adam Weber dispersed the ball a little more evenly, resulting in junior WR Ben Kuznia catching seven passes for a career-best 98 yards. Senior TE Jack Simmons and freshman Brandon Green combined for 11 catches and 74 yards.
GAME BALL GOES TO: QB Adam Weber — The one-man show on offense threw for 327 yards, a season high, and added a team-high 53 yards rushing.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Bowl scenarios — The Rose Bowl is gone, but the Gophers are still in position to land a New Year’s Day bowl. A determining factor in that might be crowd sizes in the final two home games, this week against Michigan and then the season finale against Iowa. Bowl committees like teams that travel well, so the best way to impress both the Capital One Bowl and the Outback Bowl is with crowds comparative in size to the 54,000-plus that turned out for the Northwestern game.
LOOKING GOOD: QB Adam Weber’s 31 completions matched his career high and his 327 passing yards are a new season high. With the offense struggling to move the ball on the ground, Weber is doing his part of keeping the Gophers in games.
Overlooked in the loss was the defense’s ability to keep coming up with big plays. Traye Simmons’ interception return for a touchdown was Minnesota’s third defensive score of the season. Simmons later added a second interception, making him the first Minnesota player with two interceptions in a game since Jamal Harris did it last September against Miami (Ohio).
The 54,122 was the largest crowd of the season, and it came during homecoming weekend. A program that often gets overlooked in Minneapolis was finally starting to get some attention. It will be interesting to see how many return this weekend when a struggling Michigan program comes to town.
STILL NEEDS WORK: Northwestern was supposed to be at a disadvantage for having to play without QB C.J. Bacher and RB Tyrell Sutton. That leaves no excuse for surrendering 217 rushing yards to the backup quarterback making his first start, as Mike Kafka was doing. That makes winning any game difficult.
The running game continues to struggle. QB Adam Weber was the leading rusher with 53 yards, which is never a good sign. RB DeLeon Eskridge was limited to 15 yards on nine carries.
PK Joel Monroe missed a short 20-yard field goal in the third quarter, which would have given the Gophers a 20-17 lead.
Field position was a problem most of the day. Ten of the Gophers’ 13 drives started inside their own 23.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “I think Eric catches the ball 99 times out of 100 there.” — QB Adam Weber, on Northwestern’s game-winning interception return for a touchdown that initially glanced off Decker’s hands
Minnesota 31, Northern Illinois 27 — Duane Bennett scored on a one-yard plunge with 22 seconds left to send the Gophers to a season-opening victory. Bennett scored a pair of touchdowns on the day and helped Minnesota avoid losing despite choking away an 11-point second-half lead.
Minnesota 42, Bowling Green 17 — QB Adam Weber threw for 233 yards and accounted for four touchdowns, and the Gophers put the game away with a 21-point avalanche in the fourth quarter. Minnesota turned four BG turnovers in the second half into touchdowns, blowing open what had been a tight game.
Minnesota 35, Montana State 23 — Eric Decker caught nine passes for 154 yards and a score, DeLeon Eskridge became the first freshman in 22 years to rush for at least three touchdowns and the Gophers improved to 3-0 with the victory over the Bobcats.
Minnesota 37, Florida Atlantic 3 — Freshman DeLeon Eskridge rushed for 78 yards and two scores, the Gophers rushed for 206 yards as a team and the defense kept FAU out of the end zone to improve to 4-0 this year. Minnesota limited FAU to 276 total yards one season after the Owls scored 42 points and racked up nearly 600 yards of offense against the Gophers.
Ohio State 34, Minnesota 21 — For the first time this year, the Gophers lost the turnover battle, and ultimately the game. The Gophers turned the ball over three times, leading to exactly half of the Buckeyes’ points (17 of 34). Freshman DeLeon Eskridge had 76 yards on 18 carries and Adam Weber threw for 187 yards, a touchdown and an interception in the loss.
Minnesota 16, Indiana 7 — But for a breakdown in protection that led to a 77-yard TD pass, the Gophers’ defense was stout. Adam Weber threw for 274 yards without an interception, completing 13 passes to Eric Decker. Joel Monroe kicked three field goals in the second half.
Minnesota 27, Illinois 20 — Illinois lost two fumbles inside its own 10-yard line that turned into Minnesota touchdowns, as former Illini All-Big Ten TE Tim Brewster earned the biggest win of his short head-coaching career during his alma mater’s homecoming. Illini QB Juice Williams threw for 462 yards and rushed for 41.
Minnesota 17, Purdue 6 — The defense knocked Purdue starting QB Curtis Painter out of the game, then limited the Boilers to 226 yards of offense and forced four turnovers in a game the defense dominated. QB Adam Weber accounted for 276 total yards and two scores, and the Gophers improved to 7-1 for the first time since 2002.
Northwestern 24, Minnesota 17 — The Wildcats’ Brendan Smith intercepted a deflection and raced 48 yards for the game-winning score with 12 seconds left, stunning the Gophers and ending their three-game winning streak. The Wildcats were playing without their regular starters at both quarterback and tailback, but backup QB Mike Kafka ran for 217 yards while directing Northwestern’s speed option.