EVANSTON, ILL. - His performance will get overshadowed by the second-half collapse, but senior wide receiver Ernie Wheelwright had the best game of his career Saturday in a 49-48 double-overtime loss to Northwestern at Ryan Field.
Wheelwright finished with seven catches for 116 yards and a career-high three touchdowns, including a highlight-reel TD catch at the end of the first half and another difficult reception in the first overtime.
"That's what we expect out of Ernie," freshman quarterback Adam Weber said. "We need him to make plays like that. He's a big, tall receiver. Just throw the ball up to him and let him go make plays. He did that today."
Wheelwright's first touchdown catch might have been the best of his career. Weber's pass into the end zone looked as if it was overthrown, but Wheelwright went horizontal and hauled in a 26-yard touchdown with two seconds left in the first half.
"To me, it was a great throw," Wheelwright said. "He threw it where the defender couldn't get it and only I could get it. I just stretched out and caught it."
Wheelwright showed good concentration on his 21-yard touchdown catch in overtime. The defender was called for pass interference on the play, but Wheelwright held on to the ball and kept his feet inbounds.
Learning on the fly
Junior Deon Hightower played his first game at middle linebacker in place of Mike Sherels, who was sidelined because of a hamstring injury. Hightower tied his career high with 10 tackles, including two for loss. He also forced a fumble.
"It's an adjustment because you're the one making the calls," Hightower said. "It's not somebody else making the calls. That's definitely tougher. But I think I handled it."
Northwestern quarterback C.J. Bacher followed his 520-yard passing performance against Michigan State last week by throwing for 470 yards Saturday.
His 990 passing yards in consecutive games ranks second in Big Ten history. Purdue's Drew Brees passed for 1,016 yards combined against the Gophers and Wisconsin in consecutive games in 1998.
All banged up
Injuries are starting to become an issue for the Gophers. Sherels, true freshman tailback Duane Bennett (ankle) and senior cornerback Desi Steib (leg) did not play.
Senior tailback Amir Pinnix, who already is battling a turf toe injury, pulled a quad on a 37-yard run on the first play of the second half.
Defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg, who already has a broken hand, did not start and played sparingly because of a shoulder injury. VanDeSteeg, who had started 18 consecutive games, was replaced by Derrick Onwuachi.
Safety Duran Cooley was on crutches after the game after getting injured while covering a kickoff.
"We're beat up," Gophers coach Tim Brewster said. " But one guy's misfortune is another guy's opportunity. Guys have to step up and play."