There were numerous chances for Northwestern to produce a different result Saturday in the Twin Cities, but the Wildcats couldn't capitalize on any of them.
Northwestern missed a field goal, failed on a pair of two-point conversion attempts and was stopped in a pair of fourth-and-one situations inside the 16-yard line in a 29-12 loss to Minnesota.
The loss dropped the Cats to 5-6 overall and means next weekend's regular-season finale against Illinois is a must-win if Northwestern wants to go bowling this postseason.
The Gophers scored on their first drive, Rodney Smith rushing in from five yards out, but they missed the extra point to take just a 6-0 lead. The mistakes started piling up for the Cats early. Clayton Thorson was sacked and fumbled the ball away. Minnesota didn't do anything with the turnover, but when Northwestern made it all the way down to the 27-yard line on its next possession, Jack Mitchell missed his field-goal attempt.
Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner threw an interception in the early moments of the second quarter, but the Cats couldn't turn that into points. After Minnesota added a field goal, Northwestern marched to the 16-yard line, only for Justin Jackson to get stopped on a fourth-and-one rushing attempt. Two plays into the next Northwestern drive, Thorson was sacked and fumbled again, this time Minnesota turning a turnover into points with a field goal to take a 12-0 lead into halftime.
Another Gophers field goal opened the second-half scoring. The Cats responded with another long drive, this one going 75 yards and ending in a Jackson touchdown rush. But Pat Fitzgerald elected to go for two with his team trailing by just nine in the third quarter. Jackson was gobbled up, the two-point try unsuccessful.
Northwestern then got a golden opportunity when Anthony Walker Jr. ripped the ball out of the hands of Minnesota kick returner Jalen Myrick, setting his offense up at the 22-yard line. But the Cats got nothing out of the deal, stopped four plays later on another fourth and one from the 13 when Thorson's pass fell incomplete.
Northwestern went three and out with good field position on its ensuing drive before Minnesota reached the end zone again, Drew Wolitarsky taking a pitch pass form Leidner in to cap an 80-yard drive. The Cats answered with a 78-yard drive of their own, one culminating in a Thorson scoring pass to Flynn Nagel. But again a two-point conversion attempt was unsuccessful, and the score remained a 10-point game.
And when Mitchell's onside-kick attempt bounced right into the hands of a Golden Gopher, the ball was returned to the Northwestern 15-yard line, Leidner rushing in for a game-sealing touchdown two plays later.
The Cats out-gained the Gophers, 339-328, had six more first downs, won the time-of-possession battle and only committed three penalties, but the missed opportunities in scoring territory buried Northwestern on Saturday.
Jackson gained 90 yards on 22 carries. The two-headed rushing monster for Minnesota of Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith combined for 105 yards on 30 carries. Thorson completed 28 passes for 276 yards and a touchdown. Austin Carr had 68 receiving yards but departed the game in the second half after being on the receiving end of a helmet-to-helmet hit that resulted in a targeting ejection for the Minnesota defender, the team's seventh such ejection of the season.
The loss sent Northwestern to a 5-6 overall record and a 4-4 mark in conference play. As mentioned, a win is required in next weekend's rivalry game against Illinois for the Cats to reach bowl eligibility.
With the win, Minnesota moved to 8-3 overall and 5-3 in the Big Ten. It's the third eight-win season in the last four campaigns for the Gophers, who had zero eight-win seasons from 2004 through 2012. Minnesota faces rival Wisconsin next weekend in the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe.