By Jess Viti
The Wildcats have done it again. With their 24-14 victory over the Minnesota Golden Gophers in Minneapolis, Northwestern won its eighth straight road game, its 11th straight divisional contest and its seventh game of the season to win the Big Ten West in outright fashion.
From the first snap Saturday morning to the final whistle, Northwestern’s defense dominated Gophers’ quarterback Tanner Morgan. Linebacker Nate Hall had two interceptions for himself in the first half, while defensive end Joe Gaziano made a game-changing strip-sack and fumble recovery in the fourth quarter. In addition to the three turnovers, the Wildcats defense never allowed Morgan (19-of-32 for 197 yards, 2 INTs, 1 TD) to find a rhythm, holding the Big Ten’s best vertical passing attack to just 306 yards of total offense.
On the other side of the ball, Clayton Thorson had one of his most efficient days of the season, completing 15-of-21 passes for 230 yards while adding a touchdown on the ground and avoiding a single turnover. The highlight of the day from this unit was a 68-yard pass from Thorson to first-year JJ Jefferson that put Northwestern inside the red zone in the fourth quarter, setting up an Isaiah Bowser touchdown run. The first-year running back had a nice day with 85 yards rushing on 25 carries, and this touchdown — his second of the day — put the game out of reach for the Gophers.
While the Wildcats got the victory, the injury bug continued to bite Saturday, and Northwestern might be short a few important players next week. Safety Jared McGee, kicker Charlie Kuhbander and cornerbacks Montre Hartage and Trae Williams all missed Saturday’s game, while the Wildcats’ second kicker Drew Luckenbaugh appeared in the game but is still not at full strength either. Worst of all, top wide receiver Flynn Nagel exited the game due to a leg injury. Redshirt first-year Berkeley Holman filled in admirably after Nagel was ruled out, but the senior receiver is difficult to replace and it is unclear how long he may be out.
Meanwhile, Nate Hall, who missed some time in the middle of the game to have his shoulder looked at, was ejected for targeting in the second half. The penalty will carry over into the Illinois game next weekend, where Hall will have to miss the first half. Northwestern will want these players ready and at full strength for either Ohio State or Michigan come December 1.
Before the ‘Cats head to Indianapolis for the highly anticipated Big Ten Championship game, though, they will first face-off at home against the Illinois Fighting Illini in the so-called Hat Game. Be sure to tune in to WNUR Saturday at 2:30 p.m. to find out who will claim the Land of Lincoln Trophy.