by Tim Hackett

Last week against Nebraska, the Minnesota Golden Gophers put up 514 yards of total offense, including 409 on the ground, with a rousing 54 points in a rout of the Cornhuskers.

On a snowy Saturday in Evanston, the Gopher offense froze: Minnesota managed just 182 yards of total offense and a grand total of zero points as the Northwestern Wildcats won their sixth straight game, celebrating Senior Day in style with a 39-0 gashing of the Golden Gophers. The Northwestern defense forced five Minnesota turnovers and turned them into 26 points

The Justin Jackson show was put on a brief hiatus last week against Purdue, but the Northwestern offense got back to its regularly-scheduled programming early and often against Minnesota. After a Gopher punt pinned the Wildcats on their own 2, Jackson broke off three straight four-yard rushes, helped by some backfield misdirection on fake jet sweeps. After those three runs, Jackson broke off a 41-yard gain to get the Wildcats going.

Northwestern would turn it over on downs on that possession, but on the next one, the one-two punch of the Wildcat running back tandem took over. Jackson picked up 27 yards on the ground and Jeremy Larkin added 36 all-purpose yards, including a five-yard scamper for a touchdown to put NU up 7-0 with 12:36 to go in the first half.

The Golden Gophers tried to claw back into the match, but turnovers quickly turned their dreams into nightmares. Two plays after Larkin’s score, Minnesota running back Kobe McCrary coughed up the ball on a dive and Montre Hartage scooped up the loose change. Eight plays later, Clayton Thorson hit superback Garrett Dickerson across the middle for an eight-yard score. Charlie Kuhbander’s PAT was blocked, however – it was the first-year’s first miss of the season.

Northwestern didn’t stop there. Three plays after Hunter Niswander pinned the Gophers on their own 4, Hartage struck again, picking off Demry Croft on an attempted comeback route. Two plays later, Jelani Roberts successfully pulled off the jet sweep, running left end for 12 yards and his first career score.

Minnesota got the ball back with exactly three minutes left in the first half. Minnesota punted it away 26 seconds later. Jackson ripped off 27 more yards on the ensuing drive before Thorson found Dickerson again for an 18-yard score and a 25-0 halftime lead.

The teams traded punts to begin the third quarter, but once Minnesota made another mistake, Northwestern pounced. Croft had a man downfield but safety Kyle Queiro got up and intercepted the pass, returning it 36 yards to set Northwestern up in plus position. Three plays later, Bennett Skowronek muscled away from poor coverage in the side of the end zone and Thorson rifled a pass his way for a 13-yard hookup and a 32-0 Northwestern lead.

Minnesota finally put together a drive on its ensuing possession, anchored by 51 rushing yards from Rodney Smith and McCrary, but Croft’s pass into the end zone was deflected right into the hands of Nate Hall. With some backups in to start the fourth quarter, Northwestern punted it away – it was the first time the Wildcats failed to capitalize on a turnover.

But it wouldn’t be the last chance they got. On the first play after that punt (which went for 73 yards, by the way), Paddy Fisher forced Smith to fumble and Hall fell on it. On the very next play, senior running back Corey Acker scampered right end for 24 yards, capping off Northwestern’s monster day with his first career score.

Jackson finished with 166 rushing yards on 31 carries, topping the 5,000 yard mark for his career. He also cracked 1,000 rushing yards for this season, joining Wisconsin legend Ron Dayne as the only Big Ten backs to rush for 1,000 yards in four consecutive seasons. Thorson completed only 9 passes in the snowy early afternoon, but three of those went for touchdowns. Hall finished with seven tackles and 2.5 sacks to go with his fumble recovery and INT. Croft completed only two of his 11 pass attempts for 43 yards – Northwestern defenders caught more Croft passes (3) for more yards (54) than did Minnesota receivers.

Northwestern will take its six-game win streak down to Champaign next Saturday to take on Illinois in the regular season finale.

Photo credit: Elizabeth Flores – Star Tribune