Gophers replay Gophers 38, Northwestern 22

The recap

The Gophers started fast at Northwestern, something they failed to do in their sole loss of the season at Iowa on Nov. 16. The defense forced three-and-outs on its first two drives while the offense scored on its first three. But the team dipped late in the first half, allowing a punt return mistake to lead to an intentional grounding in the end zone mistake to lead to a first touchdown for the Wildcats mistake.

But the No. 9 Gophers never let Northwestern too close to their big lead and ended up with their 10th regular-season win for the first time since 1905, including a seventh conference victory for the first time ever. Meanwhile, receivers Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards while Rodney Smith topped 1,000 rushing yards. Quarterback Tanner Morgan helped those endeavors, returning from a concussion late in the Iowa game to set the school record of 26 touchdown passes in a season.

“That’s not just a Tanner Morgan thing,” the sophomore said of his accomplishment. “It’s a Coach [Kirk] Ciarrocca [thing]. That’s offensive line. Receivers. It’s running backs. It’s not just an individual thing at all.”

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• Tight end injury: Sophomore starting tight end Jake Paulson lasted only about seven plays into the game before limping off with an injury. The KFAN radio broadcast said he went for X-rays on his right ankle, and Paulson later appeared on the sideline in the second half leaning on crutches with his right foot in a boot. He’s made four catches for 51 yards this year but has been more of an asset as an extra blocker with the offensive line. Junior Ko Kieft did most of the filling in for him.

• Lantz and Dunlap make an impact: Freshman kicker Michael Lantz and sophomore right guard Curtis Dunlap Jr. both returned from injuries. Lantz missed two games with “leg tightness,” per coach P.J. Fleck, but sank a 37-yard field goal and all five of his extra points Saturday. Dunlap did not travel to Iowa after being “banged up” against Penn State on Nov. 9, according to a team spokesman. But he helped the O-line with a run game that produced 212 yards, 149 yards better than at Iowa.

• Top defenders: Redshirt sophomore safety Antoine Winfield Jr. led the Gophers with 11 tackles, including a strip sack for a loss of 10 yards. Senior linebacker Kamal Martin made eight tackles, with a sack for a loss of 8 yards. Senior linebacker Thomas Barber also had eight and a quarterback hurry. Senior defensive end Carter Coughlin made six tackles, including one for a loss, plus two quarterback hurries. Senior defensive tackle Sam Renner had five tackles, including a sack, and made two tackles for loss.

Up next: vs. Wisconsin

2:30 p.m. Saturday, TCF Bank Stadium • TV (radio): Ch. 5 (100.3-FM)

The skinny: The Gophers finally won in the Border Battle after a 14-year drought last season, stuffing the Badgers 37-15 at Camp Randall Stadium for the first time since 1994. But even more is on the line a year later.

The winner of the game between the No. 9 Gophers and No. 13 Wisconsin wins the Big Ten West and heads to Indianapolis on Dec. 7 to face No. 2 Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Wisconsin (9-2, 6-2) lost back-to-back games in October, a surprising last-minute, one-point defeat to unranked Illinois before a 38-7 drubbing at Ohio State. But before that the Badgers posted four lopsided shutouts, with ranked teams Michigan and Iowa among their conquests.

Offensively, the teams are fairly evenly matched, with each averaging about 35 points and more than 425 yards per game. Running back Jonathan Taylor carries the load for Wisconsin, with his 233 carries for 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns as well as an FBS record of 12 games with 200 or more rushing yards. The Gophers offense spreads between two 1,000-yard receivers, one 1,000-yard rusher and a nearly 2,500-yard passer.

Defensively, the Badgers have the slight edge, allowing about one fewer touchdown and 50 fewer yards per game. But the Gophers have several playmakers on the side of the ball, including safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and his seven interceptions.

And if that’s not enough excitement for a regular-season finale, ESPN’s “College GameDay” will broadcast from the University of Minnesota campus for the first time Saturday morning.