Late INT lifts Northwestern past Minnesota 24-17
By Dave Campbell
MINNEAPOLIS — Brendan Smith grabbed a deflected ball and returned an interception 48 yards for a touchdown with 12 seconds remaining, sending Northwestern past stunned Minnesota 24-17 and spoiling homecoming for the 20th-ranked Gophers on Saturday.
Mike Kafka replaced C.J. Bacher at quarterback for the Wildcats (7-2, 3-2) after a hamstring injury ended Bacher’s streak of 25 straight starts. Kafka was unstoppable with the ball in his hands and his head pointed upfield, carrying 27 times for 217 yards — a school record for a quarterback — to make up for two costly interceptions.
With second-and-7 at his own 29-yard line and 26 seconds left, Adam Weber dropped back to pass and looked for the Big Ten’s leading receiver, Eric Decker. He got a hand on it, as did Northwestern’s David Oredugba, and the ball was about to harmlessly hit the turf at midfield until Smith plucked it out of the air and zig-zagged his way to the end zone.
Weber finished 31-for-51 for 328 yards and a touchdown, plus 53 yards on 16 rushing attempts, for the Gophers (7-2, 3-2). They had trouble sustaining their offense all afternoon, punting seven times and failing to score in the second half.
Decker had 62 yards and a score, but he was hobbling around in the second half and had trouble getting open. DeLeon Eskridge managed only 15 yards on nine rushes.
Northwestern’s defense definitely deserved credit for this, but Kafka was the star of the show while Omar Conteh, who replaced the injured Tyrell Sutton at running back, couldn’t find any room.
Kakfa went 12-for-16 for 143 yards and two first-half touchdowns through the air and gave the Wildcats their first 200-yard rusher since Sutton in 2005. Kafka, a junior from Chicago, smashed Zak Kustok’s mark of 115 yards rushing by a quarterback set in 2001.
The Wildcats no-huddled and hurried their way to a 10-0 lead before the Gophers got settled, scoring first on a perfectly placed 36-yard pass from Kafka to Jeremy Ebert on third-and-5.
Kafka made clear what he’d be doing all afternoon on the game’s very first play, darting for 11 yards through a hole in the line. He was on target with his first eight passes, too, and didn’t throw an incompletion until early in the second quarter.
Weber fired consecutive completions to backup tight end Nick Tow-Arnett for 31 and 26 yards and found Decker on third down from 7 yards out to get the Gophers on the board two plays into the second quarter. Five minutes later, Kafka made his first mistake: a telegraphed pass from his own 18-yard line to Ross Lane on an short out pattern that Simmons stepped in front of and took back for an easy touchdown to make it 14-10.
Just when it looked like the momentum shifted to Minnesota, Kafka and Northwestern came roaring back. He raced for 53 yards on first down and was forced out of bounds at the 2 by Simmons. Then he found tight end Josh Rooks wide open for the go-ahead score.
Decker broke his own single-season school record for receptions, with 73.
Minnesota’s Joel Monroe, who has missed two extra points this season, tied the game at 17 with 36 seconds remaining in the first half with a 21-yard field goal. He shanked a 20-yard attempt, though, in the third quarter and the Gophers were short on a fake they tried in the fourth.