If the Gophers want to go to a bowl game, they have one more chance to make it happen, but they’re going to have to do it the hard way — by beating Wisconsin for the first time in 15 years and winning at Camp Randall Stadium for the first time since 1994.
That’s the task that awaits coach P.J. Fleck’s team next week in Madison because of what transpired Saturday afternoon against No. 24 Northwestern at TCF Bank Stadium.
Doomed by three turnovers, a missed field-goal attempt and a key fourth-down turnover on downs, the Gophers lost 24-14 to the Wildcats in front of an announced crowd of 32,134. That left Minnesota with a 5-6 record, 2-6 in the Big Ten, one win shy of bowl eligibility.
The couldn’t get that sixth win Saturday because the Big Ten West Division-champion Wildcats (7-4, 7-1) played mostly error-free football and owned the key situations.
“They’re like Iceman in ‘Top Gun,’ ’’ Fleck said, referencing the steely efficient fighter pilot played by Val Kilmer in the 1986 movie. “They don’t make any mistakes. They make you play a perfect game, and we weren’t capable today of playing a perfect game.’’
No, they weren’t, but the Gophers were within one score of Northwestern until early in the fourth quarter. They were done in by their miscues, and these hurt them the most:
• On their second possession, the Gophers drove to the Wildcats 27 as Tanner Morgan hit Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman for gains of 14 and 16 yards. But his first-down pass intended for Bateman caromed off a couple of Wildcats, and linebacker Nate Hall intercepted it at the 16. One scoring opportunity lost for the Gophers.
After the Gophers forced a punt, Morgan tried to hit Johnson, who was tightly covered near midfield. The pass was underthrown, and Hall grabbed his second pick. “I just need a better throw,’’ said Morgan, who completed 19 of 32 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown with those two picks. “When that happens, you give the defense a chance. That’s unacceptable.’’
Northwestern cashed that in by driving 45 yards for a 7-0 lead on Isaiah Bower’s 2-yard TD run.
• Late the first quarter, Jacob Herbers’ 58-yard punt pinned the Wildcats at their 4, and Minnesota’s suddenly resurgent defense — led by Blake Cashman’s 20 tackles, one sack and 2½ tackles for loss — forced a three-and-out. The Gophers took over at the Northwestern 49 and drove to the 26. But on fourth-and-1, Hall dropped Seth Green for no gain, another scoring opportunity lost by Minnesota.
“They got us,’’ Fleck said. “He made a great play.’’
• The Gophers tied the score 7-7 with 2:18 left in the first half on a 1-yard TD run by Mohamed Ibrahim, who had a 29-yard gain on the 11-play drive and finished the day with 98 yards on 20 carries. Northwestern, however, had a quick answer.
A 39-yard kickoff return by Kyric McGowan gave the Wildcats the ball at their 45. Quarterback Clayton Thorson hit Bennett Skowronek for a 23-yard gain to the Minnesota 32, then Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman for 19 yards to the 13. Thorson’s 13-yard option keeper made it 13-7; Drew Luckenbaugh’s extra point was wide right.
“Big plays more than likely lead to points, and we saw that,’’ Cashman said. “It’s frustrating.’’
• Down six points, the Gophers had a chance to halve that lead on their first possession of the third quarter. They drove 46 yards to the Northwestern 19, but Ibrahim was stopped for a 1-yard loss on third-and-1, and Emmit Carpenter missed a 38-yard field-goal attempt.
• The Gophers defense played well for most of the game, holding the Wildcats to 95 rushing yards, but one breakdown led to Northwestern taking a 21-7 lead. Thorson connected with JJ Jefferson for a 68-yard gain to the Minnesota 2 when safety Jordan Howden couldn’t make the tackle. Bowser scored on the next play, and Thorson added a two-point conversion pass for a 14-point lead with 11:07 left in the fourth quarter.
“That’s what Northwestern does,’’ Fleck said. “Usually, every head coach is talking about four or five plays that could have went either way when you play them. They make you beat yourself.’’
Northwestern got its final points on a 29-yard field goal by Jake Collins with 7:49 left after Wildcats defensive end Joe Gaziano strip-sacked Morgan and returned the fumble to the Gophers 17.
Minnesota cut it to 24-14 on Morgan’s 6-yard TD pass to Johnson with 4:32 to play.
Afterward, Fleck turned his focus to Wisconsin.
“Like I told our team, ‘Listen, this one’s over, it’s done with,’ ” he said. “We’ve got a lot to learn from it. We’ve got seven days. We get a chance to have everything in front of us. Bowl game eligibility is still out there.’’