EVANSTON, ILL. – When the gales of November come calling, a football team’s best friends are a strong running game and the ability to feast on turnovers.
That was on display Saturday at Ryan Field, as Northwestern rushed for 277 yards, managed the gusty wind and forced five turnovers in a 39-0 victory over the Gophers with rain, then snow, falling. The Wildcats scored 25 second-quarter points — with winds of 20-25 miles per hour and gusts to 40 at their backs.
Meanwhile, the Gophers (5-6, 2-6 Big Ten) failed to take advantage when they had the elements in their favor. Twice they had the ball in Northwestern territory in the first quarter with the northerly wind at their backs but did not score.
And when Minnesota’s offense went into the wind in that decisive second quarter, it produced only 30 yards and no first downs, going three-and-out two times and turning the ball over twice. Three more turnovers would follow in the second half.
“We never really had opportunities to go win the football game because of the turnovers we had,’’ Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “… Before we even had the opportunity to win the game, we were losing the game so fast that it just got out of control.”
The loss left the Gophers still needing one more victory to reach bowl eligibility and facing the daunting task of doing so against No. 5 Wisconsin in the finale next Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.
Northwestern (8-3, 6-2) dominated on the ground, with senior Justin Jackson rushing 31 times for 166 yards, 136 in the first half. Jackson became the second player in Big Ten history to rush for 1,000 yards for four consecutive years, joining Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne.
“We had some guys not in their gap, where they needed to be,’’ Fleck said. “We had some guys go out and do some things that were outside the scheme, because they wanted to make a play.’’
Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson went 9-for-13 for 86 yards and three touchdowns, taking advantage of short fields created by turnovers.
“It’s always difficult to make stops in the Big Ten, but that’s just what we need to do,’’ said linebacker Thomas Barber, who led the Gophers with 15 tackles. “It doesn’t matter what the circumstance is.’’
The Gophers and quarterback Demry Croft clearly missed leading wide receiver Tyler Johnson, who reportedly suffered a broken left wrist last week against Nebraska. Croft went 2-for-11 for 43 yards with three interceptions, and his receivers dropped six passes.
The game started decently for the Gophers, with the defense forcing a three-and-out on Carter Coughlin’s sack and Croft hitting Rashad Still for a 36-yard gain to the Northwestern 35 on Minnesota’s first offensive play.
But, as was the case all game long, the Gophers couldn’t capitalize. They made it to the 28, but Croft was sacked by Nate Hall on third down, and they punted. The Gophers finished 1-for-11 on third-down conversions.
“We had to [capitalize],’’ Fleck said, noting the wind advantage in the first quarter. “I thought we moved it OK, but there’d be a sack or something that stopped us.’’
That happened again on their next possession, when they made it to Northwestern’s 47. But Still dropped a first-down pass and Croft was sacked on third down.
Unlike the Gophers, Northwestern had little trouble going against the wind, driving to Minnesota’s 23 late in the first quarter. Early in the second, Jackson converted a fourth-and-1 and Jeremy Larkin punched it in from the 5 for a 7-0 Wildcats lead.
Going into the wind in the second quarter, the Gophers promptly gave the ball back on Kobe McCrary’s fumble that cornerback Montre Hartage recovered at Minnesota’s 36. The Wildcats cashed that in with an 8-yard TD pass from Thorson to Garrett Dickerson for a 13-0 lead.
Later in the quarter, Hartage intercepted Croft’s third-down pass intended for Still at the Minnesota. Two plays later, Jelani Roberts ran 12 yards for a TD and 19-0 lead with 3:09 left in the half.
“When you turn the ball over inside your own zone as many times as we did, that team is going to score every time,” Fleck said.
The Wildcats boosted the lead to 25-0 on Thorson’s 18-yard TD pass to Dickerson with 26 seconds left in the half.
In third quarter, the Gophers committed three turnovers — two interceptions thrown by Croft and a fumble lost by Rodney Smith. Northwestern turned the last two into 14 points.
“They just took advantage of every opportunity we gave them,’’ Fleck said.