MINNEAPOLIS — Just when you think you've figured out a little something about Big Ten football, I drive six hours and find myself writing about Northwestern's defense.
Not quarterback/receiver/Nebraska-killer Kain Colter. Not alternate quarterback Trevor Siemian. Not a bunch of wild-and-crazy spread formations.
Defense. That unit was the clear MVP in Saturday's 21-13 victory at Minnesota.
In other games for Northwestern (6-1, 2-1), the defense has been more MIA (missing in action) than MVP. The Wildcats gave up second-half point totals of 28 to Syracuse, 29 to Indiana and 29 last week in a loss at Penn State.
Against Minnesota, the second-half damage was three points and just 116 yards allowed on five Gopher possessions. The biggest accomplishment was a goal-line stand in the final four minutes, allowing only 2 yards after Minnesota got a first-and-goal at the 8.
The defense, ranked 66th nationally, needed to come through.
Northwestern's offense, after it helped build a 21-10 halftime lead largely on touchdown runs of 26 and 48 yards from tailback Venric Mark, had no second-half play that netted more than 9 yards.
Though Mark finished with 182 yards on 20 carries, Northwestern was 1 of 10 on third- and fourth-down conversions, and snapped the ball just 51 times to Minnesota's 72.
“The way the defense finished out the game,” senior defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt said, “this is big for us.”
Especially after allowing 22 points to Penn State in the final 10 minutes of last week's 39-28 loss. The key to shaking that memory, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said, started with a team leadership council meeting last Monday.
“They said they were all hungry to be the guy to make ‘the' play,” he said. “Against Penn State, we were always one play away. So that's how we prepared this week, and that's how we played.”
Northwestern's key fourth-quarter defensive stand against Minnesota was as much fire drill as stylistic success.
The Gophers completed passes of 18, 23, 16 and 16 yards. Another pass fell incomplete when an open receiver in the end zone slipped on the rain-soaked turf.
“Outside of the last drive,” Fitzgerald said, “when they ran a wheel route and an exchange route — all the things we practiced — we just lost focus for a little bit. But we got off the field on fourth down.”
Remember those words. The focus is on results, not style.
“We're not going to be a thing of beauty,” Fitzgerald said. “We're not going to win a Miss America pageant this year. We're just not. We're too young.
“We've got to find a way to win. You get out there, get a win, get out of Dodge. That's been our mentality.”
In a season in which the Big Ten is an unpredictable mess — did I mention Iowa won Saturday at preseason favorite Michigan State — perhaps a scrappy team with a view far short of the horizon could become the most dangerous threat.
And on a team with only 12 seniors in the top 44 on the depth chart, the short view works fine.
Fitzgerald chuckled when asked if the players celebrated getting to six wins and bowl eligibility for the sixth straight season.
“I don't think they have a clue,” he said. “That's not the goal on the board.”
What is the goal?
“Winning the Legends,” he said. “To do that, we talk about going 1-0 every week.”
Nobody picked Northwestern, which hosts Nebraska this week, to get close to division title contention. Michigan, Michigan State and the Huskers were always above the Wildcats in the preseason projections.
Those three teams, plus Iowa, are the next four foes on the schedule.
Fitzgerald cringed when asked about the upcoming challenge of facing dual-threat quarterbacks such as Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Michigan's Denard Robinson.
“You guys are killing me,” he said to growing laughter. “Can I enjoy this one first?”
It will be far more enjoyable for Northwestern and its leader knowing the defense is coming around for the stretch run.
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