Sandell: Observations from Gophers' road upset of Northwestern
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The factors were against the Gophers, sitting at 0-2 in the Big Ten, their head coach on an indefinite medical leave of absence and on the road at Northwestern as 12.5-point underdogs.
But the Gophers showed an impressive streak of resiliency on Saturday not often seen from them down the stretch.
Capitalizing on two key second half turnovers, the Gophers commanded control over Northwestern in the final 30 minutes en route to a 20-17 upset - Minnesota's first Big Ten victory of the season.
Was it the "signature victory" Kill and the Gophers have been searching for in the last three years? No, but it is as close to that distinction as Minnesota has gotten.
The win, which came with Kill watching from the press box, marked the Gophers' first Big Ten victory in four years against a team not named Iowa, Purdue or Illinois.
Northwestern didn't look like the team that rose to No. 16 nationally after a 4-0 start and put Ohio State's unbeaten streak in serious jeopardy two weeks ago. The Wildcats offense, without two of its best players (RB Venric Mark and QB Kain Colter) was left baffled all afternoon, held in check by a suddenly revitalized defense.
However, while Northwestern was not at full strength, that doesn't take away from the Gophers' performance. Under a cloud of outside factors, the Gophers responded with acting head coach Tracy Claeys at the helm for a win that brought a new surge of life to their season.
• There's no getting away from the now weekly quarterback debate. This time there is good reason for it. Redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner got the start, but after the offense sputtered early, on came sophomore Philip Nelson
In three quarters, Nelson may have earned his starting spot back. Nelson help to awaken the offense, leading a game-tying touchdown drive on his first possession back in the Gophers huddle. He missed on only three passes (8-of-11) on his way to 112 yards.
• Senior defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman's afternoon was reminder why he is on the radar of NFL scouts. Hageman was an anchor on a Gophers defense that weathered a few miscues to eventually keep Northwestern's offense a disjointed mess. Hageman tallied his first career interception with a second quarter pick.
• But it's not Hageman who should get defensive MVP honors this time. Senior linebacker James Manuel's career performance was highlighted by 24-yard pick-six that turned the game's momentum squarely in Minnesota's favor. Manuel added one of the Gophers' three sacks among his five tackles.
• Minnesota likes to mix it up with its stable of running backs, but David Cobb made another strong case Saturday as to why he should be the Gophers' primary back. Cobb rumbled to his second 100-yard game (103) After the "U" rushing attack was stagnate for much of the first half, Cobb totaled 67 of his yards in the final two quarters.
• Injury concerns in the secondary resulted in Brock Vereen shifting from safety to cornerback. The move did nothing to alter the senior's impact. Vereen had two pass break-ups on Northwestern's final drive that sealed the victory for the Gophers.
• In Vereen's place at safety, sophomore Antonio Johnson had a team-leading 11 tackles in his first career start.
• Northwestern's three turnovers to the zero committed by the Gophers was a crucial game-changer.
• The Gophers committed as many penalties Saturday (nine for 89 yards) as they had in their first four games combined. But some of those calls were questionable, including a bizarre illegal pick penalty that took away a touchdown in the third quarter.
• Gophers punter Peter Mortell tied his career record with seven punts, one more than Northwestern's Brandon Williams. Mortell posted a 44.7 yard per punt average. With a 43.3-yard average, he is currently on-track for one the top-3 best seasons by a Gophers punter.