MINNEAPOLIS—When he was an assistant at Northern Illinois, Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck once cold-called Pat Fitzgerald for a lunch meeting to learn about being a head coach.A decade later, Fitzgerald and his Northwestern Wildcats are still teaching teams like the Gophers how to win in the Big Ten.Isaiah Bowser rushed for 85 yards and two touchdowns, and No. 24 Northwestern turned three turnovers by Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan into 10 points on the way to a 24-14 victory on Saturday that stretched its program-record road winning streak to eight games.
”The teams that win in our league are the teams that have the sustainability over the long period of time,” Fleck said. ”You have to earn that, but they have that.”
Clayton Thorson completed 15 of 21 passes for 230 yards without a turnover and had a 13-yard touchdown run in the first half for the Wildcats (7-4, 7-1, No. 22 CFP), who have their best Big Ten record since 1996 when Fitzgerald was in his final season as a player.Nate Hall had two interceptions for the Wildcats, who have won 14 of their last 15 conference contests, including 11 games in a row against opponents within the West Division they clinched the week before. Hall, who also made the tackle on a fourth-and-1 stop of Seth Green at the Northwestern 26 in the second quarter, was ejected for targeting on a helmet-to-helmet hit on Morgan in the fourth quarter.
”A very businesslike championship-type approach to the week culminated with a very businesslike win,” Fitzgerald said. ”I thought our guys were very focused.”
With a kickoff temperature of 23 degrees, which was actually slightly warmer than when Minnesota beat Purdue here last week , Thorson and the Wildcats played the field-position game well. The secondary missing three injured starters complemented a strong pass rush led by Joe Gaziano, who forced a fumble by Morgan with a sack in the fourth quarter, setting up a short field goal.That came right after a 68-yard completion on third down from Thorson to J.J. Jefferson, who slipped past freshman safety Jordan Howden and was tackled at the 2 before Bowser’s second score.Morgan finished 19 for 32 for 197 yards and a late touchdown pass to Tyler Johnson, who topped the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Minnesota’s streak of four straight games with 400-plus total yards, the longest for the program in more than 12 years, was stopped.
”They’re fighting for bowl eligibility. We knew we were going to get their best shot,” Fitzgerald said. ”That’s what jumps out to me so much about our defense.”
After cracking The Associated Press Top 25 for the first time this season following last week’s win at Iowa , Northwestern will remain a ranked team for now. The Wildcats aren’t part of the College Football Playoff conversation, but to be headed for the Big Ten championship game in December after losing at home to Akron and starting the season 1-3 in September is quite an accomplishment. The Cats host Illinois as they try to defend the Land if Lincoln Trophy next Saturday.