Game Recap: ‘Cats win 21-13 behind Mark and Defense; Become Bowl Eligible

Photo Courtesy: Associated Press

By Kevin Harris

Thanks to junior running back Venric Mark and the Northwestern defense, the Wildcats (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten) became bowl eligible for the sixth consecutive season. With rain pouring down at TCF Bank Stadium, the Cats secured their sixth win of the season 21-13 against the Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-2, 0-2 Big Ten), despite the fact NU had a weak offense for the second consecutive week as well as 11 penalties. After the game, Mark summed up team’s mindset, telling reporters, “I feel like we have a little swag to us now and that’s good.”

It didn’t take long at all for Northwestern to get on the scoreboard. On the opening kickoff Northwestern’s C.J. Bryant forced a fumble, leading to a 26-yard touchdown by Mark on the following play. That was just the start of a monster day for Mark, who had a career high 182-yards rushing and two touchdowns on only 20 total carries – five of which were for more than 25-yards. Mark’s second touchdown came early in the second quarter on a 48-yard run up the middle where he was completely untouched. During a postgame interview Mark explained that the scouting report for the game was to “mulch them up” and that the large holes he took advantage of throughout the game were either “great blocking or bad defensive schemes – whatever you choose [to believe].”

While Mark was the story of the first half, the second half was a defensive battle. Luckily, the Northwestern defense stepped up and delivered one of its best performances to date, holding to Golden Gophers to only 13 points and avoiding a repeat of last week’s heartbreaking collapse at Penn St. “I think [the defense], personally, won us the game,” Mark told reporters after the game. Late in the fourth quarter after starting quarterback Marquis Gray left the game with an injury, backup Max Shortell managed to drive his team down the field 81-yards to the 6-yard-line. But the NU defense held firm and locked up the game when Shortell overthrew his target in the back of the end zone on 4th and goal with only two and a half minutes remaining.

Throughout the game the Wildcats’ defense had a number of other crucial plays as well. Senior linebacker David Nwabuisi had a key interception in the second quarter immediately after Minnesota took control of the ball at midfield. Junior defensive lineman Tyler Scott also came up big, forcing a fumble from Shortell’s blindside that was recovered by fellow lineman Quentin Williams in the final seconds of the game. Additionally, the defense managed to halt two threatening Minnesota drives and force the Golden Gophers to settle for field goals. In the end, the often criticized Northwestern secondary found a way – largely due to the sloppy conditions – to limit Minnesota to a respectable 169 passing yards. But they gave 158 yards on the ground, many of which came from Gray who continuously ran an option draw play for big gains, such as his 25-yard touchdown at the start of the second quarter.

It was a good thing the Northwestern defense came out strong as besides for Mark and his handful of big plays, the Northwestern offense seemed to struggle in general throughout the game. NU was a measly 1-for-9 on third down conversions and only had 13 total first downs during the entire game, compared to 21 for the home team. Furthermore, in the first half the Golden Gophers controlled the ball for twice as long as the Cats, who weren’t able to score any points at all in the second half. Northwestern continued to rotate quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. However, Siemian struggled in the wet weather going 1-for-7 in the air for only 4 yards. Colter didn’t fare much better as he only racked up 63 passing yards despite the fact he was 10-for-10. On the ground attack though Colter had 26-yards as well as a touchdown, which came late in the first quarter on an option play that has been one of the Wildcats’ go to plays this season.

Northwestern will return home next week to face a tough Nebraska (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten) team in a game that has big implications for the Big Ten standings. While game time has yet to be announced, Ryan Field will be packed as tickets sold out weeks ago thanks to Family Weekend festivities. Make sure to catch next week’s game on WNUR Sports (89.3 FM).

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