The Gophers accomplished something Saturday that they hadn’t done since the early 1900s. Fittingly, it came in a game that resembled some of those pre-World War I slugfests.
The Gophers defense overcame yet another targeting penalty — the seventh of the season — as it forced two turnovers and sacked Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson seven times.
Senior Mitch Leidner threw his first touchdown pass since Oct. 1 and added his 32nd career TD run, sealing the 29-12 victory in Minnesota’s home finale.
The Gophers (8-3, 5-3 Big Ten) earned their third eight-victory season in four years, the first time they have done that in a four-year span since 1903-06.
“Means a lot,” Leidner said. “But at the same time we’re not finished yet. We’re really looking forward to going out to Wisconsin next week.”
Earlier Saturday, the Gophers were eliminated from the Big Ten West race, when Wisconsin and Nebraska both won. Those teams are 6-2 in conference play, and Wisconsin holds the tiebreakers with its win over Nebraska and 5-0 record within the division.
The Gophers still made it a Senior Day to remember for Leidner and Co., even with a sparse crowd there to see it on a 30-degree day with a windchill of 18. The announced crowd of 38,162 was the smallest in the eight-year history of TCF Bank Stadium.
Northwestern (5-6, 4-4) had scored road wins earlier this season at Iowa, Michigan State and Purdue, and taken a four-point loss at Ohio State.
The Gophers led this one 12-0 at halftime, and the lead could have been bigger. They had second-and-goal from the Northwestern 2 in the second quarter and wound up settling for a field goal. Early in the third quarter, they had first-and-goal from the Wildcats 3 and again settled for three points.
Leading 15-0, the Gophers still appeared in total control. But the momentum shifted when Gophers safety Duke McGhee was ejected for targeting on a helmet-to-helmet hit on receiver Austin Carr.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was livid. Carr is the Big Ten’s leading receiver, and he lay on his back at midfield after the hit. It was the second targeting penalty for McGhee, who has to miss the first half of the Wisconsin game.
Asked about Minnesota’s targeting troubles, Fitzgerald said: “I think those are great questions for Coach Claeys. It’s not my team. You can ask him.”
Claeys thought three of the team’s six earlier targeting penalties fell into a gray area as unavoidable. On McGhee’s latest, the coach said: “I don’t disagree with the call at all. He knows better than that.”
Fitzgerald screamed across the field at the Gophers coaches, and they shouted back. Fitzgerald gathered his entire team together on the field, while the athletic trainers looked at Carr, who eventually walked off the field under his own power.
The sequence appeared to spark the Wildcats, who kept the drive going into the end zone with a 4-yard run from Justin Jackson. Trailing 15-6, Fitzgerald went for the two-point conversion, but Jackson was stopped.
The Gophers fumbled on the ensuing kickoff, when Anthony Walker stole the ball from Jalen Myrick. Northwestern took over at the 30-yard line, but Minnesota’s defense held. On fourth-and-1 from the 13, Fitzgerald went for it instead of taking the three points.
Gophers safety Adekunle Ayinde, who came in to replace McGhee, broke up a pass on fourth down.
“Emotions were pretty high [after the targeting penalty],” Gophers linebacker Jack Lynn said. “But we’re a level-headed team and we didn’t let that affect us.”
Minnesota finally put the game away with less than seven minutes remaining, when Leidner hit fellow senior Drew Wolitarsky with a 9-yard touchdown pass. Leidner had rushed for a key first down on third-and-4 one play earlier.
Northwestern came back and scored a touchdown, on a Thorson pass, but once again the two-point try failed. The Wildcats tried an onside kick, and Rashad Still returned it to their 15-yard line. That set up Leidner’s final 9-yard touchdown run, an exclamation point on Senior Day.
The game ended with the Gophers in victory formation, with Leidner taking a snap from his brother, Matt. The Leidners had never taken a snap together with the Gophers, and it happened in the final home game for both players.
“It was just an unbelievable moment,” Leidner said. “Something we always wanted to be able to do together. I couldn’t wait to get into the locker room and celebrate with the guys.”