EVANSTON, ILL. – The Gophers experienced a sold-out TCF Bank Stadium crowd when they overcame then-No. 4 Penn State on Nov. 9. A week after that, more than 67,000 fans packed Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium for their close loss.
But Northwestern’s Ryan Field, the smallest stadium in the Big Ten conference with a 47,000 capacity, managed an announced attendance of only 30,246. While nearly half of those appeared to be traveling Gophers fans, it was still a much quieter atmosphere than the Gophers had recently enjoyed.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, though, was proud of how his team didn’t let that change result in a letdown, especially with a title-defining game against Wisconsin coming up Nov. 30.
“To be able to respond after a very, very emotional win and then a very, very emotional loss, and then come back, and everybody’s talking about a week out, and you’ve got to stay focused on one week,” Fleck said. “It’s very difficult to do.”
Gophers tight end Jake Paulson left Saturday’s 38-22 win at Northwestern early with an injury.
The sophomore limped off the field, barely putting weight on his right leg, after a collision on the Gophers’ opening drive. He was carted off the field, with KFAN reporting during the radio broadcast the player would go for X-rays on his ankle. Paulson appeared on the sidelines in the second half back in street clothes and leaning on crutches, his right foot in a boot.
The starting tight end did not play in the Rutgers or Maryland games either with an injury. He’s made four receptions for 81 yards this year but contributed more in blocking, helping the offensive line with protection. Junior Ko Kieft took more reps in Paulson’s absence.
Lantz, Dunlap return
Freshman kicker Michael Lantz and sophomore right guard Curtis Dunlap Jr. returned from injuries Saturday.
Lantz had missed the past two games after experiencing “leg tightness”, according to Fleck, before the Penn State game. Redshirt freshman Brock Walker filled in for him against the Nittany Lions and at the Hawkeyes but missed some key kicks at Iowa. Lantz kicked a 37-yard field goal and made all five of his extra points.
Dunlap was “banged up” against Penn State but finished the game, a team spokesman said, and did not travel to Iowa. That game saw the offensive line allow six sacks while the run game managed only 63 yards. At Northwestern, the line allowed two sacks while the rush accumulated 212 yards.
The Gophers faced another couple of backup quarterbacks, a trend for most of this season. Northwestern surprised the Gophers when it started a quarterback who wasn’t even on the depth chart. Hunter Johnson, once a five-star Clemson recruit, stepped in for senior TJ Green after the starter’s Week 1 foot injury.
But a combination of injuries, personal issues and a disappointing 47.2 completion percentage gave way to Aidan Smith, whom Northwestern had listed as doubtful with an injury.
Johnson only lasted until the second quarter, though, when Antoine Winfield Jr.’s strip sack knocked him out of the game. Fourth-stringer Andrew Marty then played and went 8-for-10 for 95 yards and a TD, running for another 52 yards and two scores.
“I feel like they ran the ball a lot more, especially when the quarterback was a running quarterback,” Winfield said.