Here are my five takeaways from the Gophers win.
1) The Gophers defense comes to play
If I'm Gophers defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel, I have to think he'll be sleeping well tonight knowing that his defense just played their most complete game of the season.
Minnesota's defense today accounted for 12 tackles for loss, seven sacks, seven pass break ups, two forced fumbles and held a potent Northwestern rushing attack to 63 yards on 33 carries.
This Gopher defense came out motivated and performed admirably all day, putting Northwestern in difficult situations as this Minnesota defense held the Wildcats to 3-15 (20%) on third down and limited them on fourth down as Minnesota stopped them three times on four attempts.
Northwestern really couldn't do anything on offense all day because of the number of stops Minnesota's D was getting, and that even forced the Wildcats go for it on fourth multiple times.
I'll expand on Blake Cashman a little later on, but he led Minnesota with 10 total (nine solo) tackles, two sacks, two tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Jack Lynn has nine tackles with 1.5 for loss, Steven Richardson has two sacks and two tackles for loss, plus a forced fumble and recovery. It was a total team effort from Jay Sawvel's group today.
2) Leidner and the seniors go out on top at TCF Bank Stadium
Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner is one of the most polarizing figures in recent memory for Minnesota fans, and whatever you're opinion of Leidner may be, you have to be happy for him and this group of seniors that they were able to end of their career at home with a victory.
Minnesota’s senior class recorded a 20-8 mark at TCF Bank Stadium since 2013. Overall, this year’s seniors have won 30 games (8 during 2013, 8 during 2014, 6 during 2015 and 8 during 2016), which is the most by a senior class since the 2006 class (2003-06) also won 30 games (10 during 2003, 7 during 2004, 7 during 2005 and 6 during 2006).
Mitch Leidner finished 14-of-25 passing for 197 yards, with a touchdown and interception. He also ran eight times for 32 yards and a TD. It was Leidner’s 32nd career rushing touchdown, a school record for quarterbacks, and tied with Laurence Maroney (2003-05) for fourth on Minnesota’s all-time rushing TD list.
It was a pretty typical Leidner day with a few off the mark throws, a few that make you nod in agreeance and then some plays with his legs that extend drives or go for touchdowns. He's going to go down as one of the most productive quarterbacks in Gopher Football history and for him to end up on top at home was something good to see.
3) Offense does just enough
Minnesota came out the gate out hot with a seven play, 80 yard play drive that was led by creative play calls, and outstanding execution, ending in a Rodney Smith touchdown.
After that, things went down hill for the next four drives as Minnesota had three consecutive three and outs, and then Leidner under-threw Eric Carter deep and Northwestern was able to get the interception. Minnesota also struggled to convert in the red zone as the Gophers ran five plays from inside of Northwestern's three yard line and none of them were touchdowns, and Minnesota has to settle for two field goals instead of two touchdowns.
Minnesota was finally able to connect on a long pass play as Leidner connect with Rashad Still on a 62 yard sideline play in the second quarter, and this Gopher team has to find more of that next week against Wisconsin.
Minnesota is still struggling to run the rock as they only could muster 131 yards on 40 carries (3.3 ypc) and Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks had to work for a majority of everything they got. Pass protection remains fine, but Minnesota's got to find something in the running game next week as Smith and Brooks can't do it all against Wisconsin.
4) Blake Cashman has been money
Here are Gophers linebacker Blake Cashman's statistics over his last three games.
19 total tackles.
Six tackles for loss.
He's been an absolute revelation for a Gopher defense that was struggling to rush the passer, and he's been outstanding on special teams all season. Cashman's ability to get after the passer was well-described by fellow linebacker Jack Lynn who said, "He plays like a man possessed."
The appearance of Cashman has allowed defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel to do things he wasn't able to do earlier in the season, as Sawvel has now found his blitzing linebacker for passing situations. Whether it's different stems and slants, Cashman has a knack for making plays and Sawvel continues to figure out how to use him most effectively and you saw that tonight.
I think I feel pretty safe in saying that Blake Cashman will not be a walk-on for much longer.
5) It's now #AxeWeek
It's no secret to any Gopher Football fan that it's been too long since Minnesota beat Wisconsin and got Paul Bunyan's Axe back to Dinkytown. Minnesota hasn't had the Axe since 2003, and hasn't won it Madison since 1994.
For a senior group that's accomplished a lot in their time here with 30 career victories, one thing escapes them and that's the Axe.
If Minnesota's going to win in Madison next week, they're going to need to the defense to play as well as they did today, and the offense has to find their running game again, and frankly Mitch Leidner is going to need to play the game of his career as the Badgers have aspirations in the College Football Playoff.
8-3 Minnesota vs. 9-2 Wisconsin next Saturday in Madison.
Nothing better to end off the regular season.
TEAM / SERIES NOTES
• Today’s game was the 92nd meeting in the all-time series with Northwestern, with Minnesota now holding a 53-34-5 lead (30-14-3 at home). The Gophers have won three of the past four meetings against the Wildcats.
• Tracy Claeys improved to 10-7 since taking over the head coaching duties eight games into the 2015 season.
• Minnesota’s senior class recorded a 20-8 mark at TCF Bank Stadium since 2013. Overall, this year’s seniors have won 30 games (8 during 2013, 8 during 2014, 6 during 2015 and 8 during 2016), which is the most by a senior class since the 2006 class (2003-06) also won 30 games (10 during 2003, 7 during 2004, 7 during 2005 and 6 during 2006).
• With the win, Minnesota improved to 8-3 overall and 5-3 in the Big Ten. It’s the third time in the past four years the Gophers have reached eight victories, and it ties the 2014 team for the most B1G wins since 2003.
• Northwestern won the coin toss and deferred. Minnesota received the kick and NU defended the west end zone.
• Today’s temperature of 30 degrees at kickoff was the sixth-coldest in TCF Bank Stadium history.
• Today’s attendance was 38,162. Minnesota drew 306,697 fans this season, an average of 43,814 per game.
• The Gophers improved to 8-1 under Tracy Claeys when losing the coin toss, including 6-1 this season.
• Minnesota led 6-0 after the first quarter. The Gophers have held leads after one quarter six times this year, and are 3-2 in those games. Minnesota has held four teams scoreless in the first quarter this season.
• The Gophers led 12-0 at the half, marking the second time they’ve held a B1G team scoreless in the first half this season. Minnesota held a 14-0 halftime lead versus Maryland, and kept the Terps off the scoreboard for three quarters.
• Minnesota scored three points off Northwestern turnovers this afternoon. Through 11 games, the Gophers have tallied 93 points off opponents’ turnovers, while allowing only 23 points off their own turnovers.
• The Gophers finished with seven sacks in the game, increasing their season total to 33. Last year, Minnesota finished the season with 22 sacks in 13 games.
• The Gophers’ defense stopped the Wildcats on three of four 4th down attempts, including two stops of 4th and 1 in the Red Zone.
• Minnesota scored 175 points in its seven home games this season for an average of 25.0 points per game.
• Minnesota improved to 1-1 at home since 2012 when wearing today’s uniform combo – Gold helmet, Gold jersey and White pants.
• The Gophers were 5-for-5 on Red Zone possessions. Through 11 games, Minnesota is 44-for-50 in the Red Zone, with touchdowns on 34 possessions.
• Mitch Leidner finished 14-of-25 passing for 197 yards and a touchdown. He also ran eight times for 32 yards and a TD. It was Leidner’s 32nd career rushing touchdown, a school record for quarterbacks, and tied with Laurence Maroney (2003-05) for fourth on Minnesota’s all-time rushing TD list.
• Leidner connected with Rashad Still on a career-long 62-yard pass play in the second quarter. Leidner’s previous best had been a 57-yard completion at Ohio State on Nov. 7, 2015, while Still’s longest reception had been 52 yards versus Michigan on Oct. 31, 2015. Still finished with two catches for 81 yards.
• Shannon Brooks led the Gophers with 14 rushing attempts for 73 yards, an average of 5.2 yards per carry.
• Rodney Smith rushed for his 15th touchdown this season, which ranks third on Minnesota’s single season list. Smith also has a kickoff return this season, giving him 16 total touchdowns, which also ranks third for a single season.
• Smith has rushed for a TD in six straight games, which ties Thomas Hamner (1996-99) for the third-longest streak in Minnesota history. Hamner accomplished the feat during Nov. 14, 1998 to Oct. 2, 1999.
• Drew Wolitarsky had four receptions for 42 yards and a TD. He now has a reception in 24 consecutive games, which ranks seventh in Minnesota history. His 57 receptions this season ranks 14th.
• For his career, Wolitarsky ranks ninth at Minnesota with 121 receptions, while ranking 11th with 1,600 receiving yards.
• Blake Cashman forced his first career fumble, which was recovered by Steven Richardson. It was Richardson’s second fumble recovery this season, and the third of his career.
• Cashman led the Gophers with a career-high 10 tackles (nine solo), while tying his career-best with two sacks.
• Richardson also forced his fourth career fumble, which Julian Huff recovered (third career). Richardson tied his career-best with two sacks, while also registering two TFLs.
• Jack Lynn finished with nine tackles (four solo), just one short of his career-high, and had 1.5 TFLs.
• Emmit Carpenter connected on field goals of 19, 42 and 30 yards, giving him 20 this season. That figure ties Dan Nystrom’s 2002 figure for second all-time. Nystrom also holds the school record for a single season, with 25 field goals during 2000.
• Carpenter missed his first career PAT, snapping a streak of 37-straight PATs to begin his career.