By Greg Mroz
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Northwestern had seen their special teams play improve over the course of the past few weeks.
But when they needed them the most, they proved to be anything but special.
Northwestern fell to the Minnesota Golden Gophers, 24-17 on Saturday. A 100-yard kickoff return touchdown by Minnesota’s Jalen Myrick turned out to be the difference.
“It looked like a couple of our guys from the field over-ran the ball,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Our kickoff team has been pretty good all year. Its disappointing.”
It was the first kickoff return touchdown allowed by Northwestern since Indiana’s Tevin Coleman did it on Sept. 29, 2012.
“We just didn’t do our jobs,” junior cornerback/special teams player Nick Vanhoose said. “We just didn’t play the right coverage.”
The game seemingly turned in Minnesota’s favor at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Already in Northwestern territory and leading 14-10, Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner completed a 20-yard curl route to Issac Fruechte that put the Gophers on the Northwestern 15-yard line.
On third down and three yards from the Northwestern 8-yard line, Leidner tried a corner fade to Maxx Williams, but Godwin Igwebuike broke the pass up, leading to a 25 field goal by Ryan Santoso that increased their lead to seven.
After Solomon Vault fumbled the ensuing kickoff out of bounds at the Northwestern 3-yard line, quarterback Trevor Siemian completed a third down pass to Tony Jones and then scrambled out of the pocket for an 11-yard floater to Kyle Prater.
Siemian marched the Wildcats down the field and Northwestern was set up with first-and-goal at the 10. On third down, Siemian threw an incomplete pass intended for Miles Shuler, but Minnesota was called for roughing the passer and gave Northwestern first-and-goal from the 2.
Trevor Siemian’s fourth rushing touchdown in his last two games completed the 97-yard drive and tied the game, 17-17, with about seven minutes left in the fourth.
“Guys made some plays, got good protection — that’s what happens when guys execute” Siemian said.
However, Myrick’s return touchdown immediately followed Northwestern’s drive.
“They won just a little bit more than we did today,” freshman running back Justin Jackson said. “It’s a collective effort.”
Jackson led the way on offense, rushing for 106 yards on 23 carries and also catching four passes for 50 yards.
Siemian went 32 for 50 for 269 yards, but dropped passes, along with untimely penalties, proved costly.
“When you allow a team to get a lead that plays that type of offense, you have to press a little bit.” Fitzgerald added. “We need to make more explosive plays.”
Northwestern outgained Minnesota 393 yards to 274, but the Wildcats ran 84 plays to Minnesota’s 54.
David Cobb became the fourteenth player in Minnesota history to rush for over 2,000 career yards. He tacked on 103 yards on 30 carries.
The Wildcats committed personal foul penalties on each of Minnesota’s first two scoring drives, which set up the Golden Gophers with first-and-goal at the 5-yard line both times. Leidner had two 1-yard runs at the goal line that gave Minnesota 7-point leads in both the first and second quarters.
“We made little detailed mistakes today” Fitzgerald said “For the most part, I think we handled the things we tried to do pretty decent.”
According to VanHoose, the team will not dwell on this Saturday’s loss for too long.
“It’s a huge bummer ending the streak, but this week of practice will be big in responding to this loss” Vanhoose said.
Northwestern, now 2-1 in conference, will face the Nebraska Cornhuskers next Saturday in a prime time matchup at home.