On the opening week of Big Ten play, Northwestern made a statement that it has what it takes to compete for a title this season.
The Wildcats opened conference play in remarkable fashion Saturday, dominating Minnesota on both sides of the ball to score a 27-0 shutout victory at Ryan Field and improve to 5-0.
The Northwestern defense was again incredible, pitching its second shutout of the season and not allowing a touchdown for the third time in five games. Through those five games, the Cats’ defense has allowed just three touchdowns.
Though Northwestern had the benefit of playing a Minnesota offense that’s looked awful more often than not, that didn’t prevent the Cats’ defense from turning in an impressive performance, limiting the Gophers to 173 total yards, 99 through the air and 74 on the ground. The Northwestern defense forced a pair of turnovers and held Minnesota to 4-for-16 on third down.
Seven of Minnesota's drives ended in punts, three ended with turnovers on downs, one ended in an interception and another ended in a fumble.
Meanwhile, Clayton Thorson had maybe his best day yet as the Northwestern quarterback, passing for 128 yards with a 73.7-percent completion percentage. Thorson rushed for a pair of touchdowns, too. Running back Justin Jackson had another triple-digit rushing day, going for 120 yards.
The Cats had two early trips deep into Gophers territory but only came away with three points, as kicker Jack Mitchell split a pair of field-goal attempts.
But the breakout play came in the form of a 57-yard punt return by Miles Shuler that put the Cats on the Gophers’ five-yard line. That set up a five-yard Thorson touchdown run on the next play.
After halftime, Thorson pitched a deep ball to Solomon Vault, who appeared to make a spectacular one-handed catch for a touchdown. But a replay review overturned the play, and Northwestern ended that drive with a field goal.
But following a failed fourth-down attempt by Minnesota deep in Northwestern territory, the Cats engineered a clinic of a touchdown drive featuring a 31-yard Jackson run and a 16-yard Thorson throw. Thorson capped the six-play, 68-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown carry to make it 20-0.
And to add a cherry on top of the sundae, Anthony Walker picked up a Mitch Leidner fumble in the fourth quarter and scored to give Northwestern a 27-0 lead.
Northwestern is now a perfect 5-0 and will surely see its AP ranking go up after entering this game as the No. 16 team in the country. The Cats’ defense remains incredibly impressive — recording multiple shutouts in the same season for the first time since 1965 — and excepting a 41-0 blowout of an FCS opponent, Saturday marked the team’s best offensive performance of the year.
Minnesota might not be as good as folks assumed in the preseason, as the Gophers’ offense continues to struggle mightily. But even against struggling Minnesota, Northwestern continues to impress and continues to look like the best team in the Big Ten West.