Early in the season, Pat Fitzgerald warned his Wildcats may not be the prettiest team to watch. Through seven games, he has been right.
"We're not going to be a thing of beauty," Pat Fitzgerald said after the win. "We're not going to Miss America pageant this year. We're not. We're too young. We've got to find a way to win."
Northwestern did not put on a football clinic. Its offense sputtered in the second half, failing to post a point. But the defense keyed the victory, holding the Golden Gophers to just a second-half field goal and earning a critical stand inside the red zone late in the fourth quarter.
Following the final whistle, the Wildcats rushed together to sing the fight song, a welcomed reward after a bowl-securing victory. They weren't sweating the struggles, not after an important win.
"I don't think any win in the Big Ten is ugly," said Brian Arnfelt, a Minnesota native. "They're all hard-fought."
NU running back Venric Mark led the charge offensively, posting a career-high 182 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He accounted for 56 percent of the Wildcats' net yardage.
Mark got his team off to a fast start, scoring on the first play from scrimmage, that following a Minnesota fumble on The Opening kickoff.
"I just saw a big hole," said Mark of the touchdown run. "The o-line did a great job. The game plan was to run the ball down their throat."
Mark continued to do just that. In the second quarter, with the Gophers climbing back, he burst 48 yards through an open hole and gave Northwestern a 21-10 lead. The first-year starter reached his career-high before the seven-minute mark of the second quarter.
While the Wildcats' struggled to compliment their running back, the efforts were enough to secure a victory.
"I think he's playing at an All-Big Ten level," Fitzgerald said of Mark. "That's what it looks like. You've got to ride the guy's shoulders and coat tails. He made some big, big plays for us today."
The Golden Gophers had several critical errors which assisted Northwestern. Coach Jerry Kill elected to attempt a fake field goal on fourth-and-11 which faltered and halted momentum. Late in the fourth quarter, Kill opted to shoot for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal rather than kicking a field goal. NU earned a stop and closed out its win.
Northwestern's defense rallied in lieu of a struggling offense, rising to the occasion when it was desperately needed.
"I thought we settled down, we fit better, and we tackled better," said Fitzgerald of his defense's second-half success.
The Northwestern team plane to Evanston won't be filled with raucous celebration, but the feeling of relief. The Wildcats found a way to win, even if it was ugly.
"When you find a way to win, you're able to get in, get out, and get dodge," Fitzgerald said. "That's our mentality."
· Northwestern reached bowl eligibility for the sixth consecutive season. Were they excited? "Bowl eligible, that doesn't matter," said Venric Mark. Defensive end Tyler Scott added: "Our goal is to go 1-and-0 each week."
· Linebacker David Nwabuisi recorded his second career interception during the second quarter. He saved a deflected pass from the ground and forced an important turnover.
· Sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell led Northwestern in tackles with 10 on the contest. His most notable hit was on Minnesota running back Donnell Kirkwood, which knocked the 'M' decal off his helmet.
· Brian Arnfelt, Northwestern's only Minnesotan, estimated 75 family members and friends attended the game at TCF Bank Stadium.
· NU running back Treyvon Green did not attend Saturday's game as he tended to a family emergency in Texas.