Evanston, Illinois. – Another defensive stop. Or win another one first. That’s all the Gophers need to win in regulation.
Instead, they blew a 21-point fourth-quarter lead against Northwestern, which caught an 11-yard tying pass from Ben Bryant to AJ Henning with two seconds left in the fourth quarter on Saturday night.
Then in overtime, the Gophers settled for a 20-yard Dragan Kesich field goal, and the Wildcats, on their first play of the extra session, caught a 25-yard touchdown pass on a bounce play from Bryant to a wide-open Charlie Mangieri for a 37-34 victory. In front of the announced 20,148 at Ryan Field.
“This is absolutely unacceptable in the fourth quarter, period,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said.
The loss dropped the Gophers to 2-2 overall and 1-1 in the Big Ten, while Northwestern — a team that entered Saturday with an 11-game losing streak against Power Five opponents — improved to 2-2 and 1-1.
Bryant completed 33 of 49 passes for 396 yards and four touchdowns. His favorite target, wide receiver Bryce Kurtz, caught 10 passes for 215 yards and two TDs, including an 80-yarder.
The Gophers got the ball first in overtime and reached the Wildcats’ 10-yard line on Athan Kaliakmanis’ 15-yard completion to Corey Crooms Jr. After Bryce Williams gained 7 yards on first and goal and one yard on second down, tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford couldn’t pick off a Kaliakmanis pass near the goal line on third down.
“That ball is for Brive, I should have put a better ball,” Kalliakmanis said.
The loss spoiled a big day for Gophers true freshman running back Darius Taylor, who rushed 31 times for 198 yards and two touchdowns. Kaliakmanis completed his first eight passes as the Gophers built a 24-7 halftime lead. The QB finished 14-for-19 for 191 yards and two TDs.
Taylor had his third straight 100-yard game by halftime, carrying 18 times for 137 yards before intermission. He had a 41-yard burst to set up a field goal in the second quarter, broke a tackle on fourth-and-1 and ran 43 yards for a third-quarter TD for a 31-10 lead. Taylor left the game due to an undisclosed injury after his last carry. Fleck did not have an immediate update but said: “I hope it’s not serious.”
Taylor’s efforts wouldn’t be enough as the Gophers’ defense, which ran through big plays in last week’s loss to North Carolina, collapsed in the fourth quarter. Minnesota surrendered 169 yards in the fourth quarter and allowed the Wildcats to convert five of six third-down situations.
The comeback began when Cam Porter’s 1-yard TD run capped an 11-play, 75-yard drive that cut the lead to 31-17 with 12:01 remaining.
Then after the Gophers blitzed with a three-and-out, Northwestern needed just 39 seconds to cut the deficit to 31-24 with 9:46 to play. Bryant connected with Kurtz and had gains of 21, 31 and 17 for touchdowns.
Northwestern got the ball back with 6:12 left in the game, but the Gophers forced the Wildcats to punt. Minnesota got a first down on a 19-yard option keeper by Kaliakmanis, but nothing more. On third-and-2 from the Northwestern 36, Taylor’s loss was stopped by one yard.
“As an offense, we just have to keep executing,” Kaliakmanis said. “Let her continue.”
Facing fourth-and-3, Fleck elected to punt. Quentin Redding was in position to drop the ball inside the 5 but instead drifted into the end zone and fielded the ball for a touchdown.
“He’s really good at what he does,” Fleck said of Redding. “He just happened to lose track of where he was, unfortunately.”
With 2:07 remaining and no timeouts remaining, Northwestern began the tying drive. A face mask call on Gophers defensive end Jah Joyner moved the ball to the Minnesota 48. A 16-yard pass on third-and-12 from Bryant to Thomas Gordon moved the ball to the 23.
Bryant then found Henning for 12 yards to the Minnesota 11 and punted with 8 seconds left. Tyler Nubin and Trevon Jones broke up an end zone pass to Johnson. Bryant then hit Henning with a slant to tie the game with two seconds left.
“Eyes in the wrong place, tackles, lack of communication, almost all of it,” Flick said about the reasons for the defensive breakdowns.
Added defensive end Danny Strigo: “Football is a four-quarter game. You can’t expect to win a lot of games when you don’t play four quarters.”
Northwestern’s lead was overshadowed by a strong first half for the Gophers, who scored their first TD on a 9-yard Kaliakmanis pass to Le’Meke Brockington on the play after Minnesota defensive tackle Kyler Baugh forced and recovered a Wildcats fumble.
Early in the second quarter, the Gophers went on a 14-0 run on a nine-play 68-yard drive capped by Taylor’s one-yard touchdown run. The key play of the rally was a stunning one-handed catch by Crooms for a 27-yard gain to the Northwestern 22. Taylor then ripped off runs of 8, 5 and 8 yards.
The Gophers marched 72 yards in six plays to extend the lead to 21-0 on Kaliakmanis’ 18-yard TD pass to Daniel Jackson with 2:50 remaining in the half.
Northwestern answered quickly with Bryant’s 80-yard TD pass to Kurtz, who got behind Gophers linebacker Justin Whalley and raced into the end zone to cut the lead to 21-7 with 2:06 remaining in the half.
The Gophers made it 24-7 with 1:04 remaining in the first half on Kesich’s 50-yard field goal, which was set up by a 41-yard run by Taylor and an 8-yard gain by Kaliakmanis, who intercepted a Wildcats defender.
After that, Flick said his team would need to regroup quickly.
“Very disappointing, incredibly disappointing,” he said. “I mean it hurts.”
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