We're often taught that upsets derive from boldness. We expected Minnesota to attack relentlessly, using its entire playbook in an upset effort. Instead, Northwestern watched Tracy Claeys' team exude calmness and earn the surprise victory.
And they did earn it. We constantly criticize Northwestern when it fails to execute in the fourth quarter, losing games in the process. Minnesota closed with ease, with comfort, like it had been there before.
Phillip Nelson's game-sealing first down run provided the perfect miniature of yesterday's game: When the Gophers could have wilted, they didn't. That statement sounds awfully unfamiliar in Evanston.
Despite the surprise appearance from Jerry Kill–on medical leave due to his epilepsy–Minnesota played with measure. It was hardly this rah-rah victory, but rather a win that came from understanding the Wildcats' limitations, and holding on for long enough.
"I told the offensive line with about five minutes to go that, ‘Hey, we're going to get the ball back for one series and let's run the clock out,'" Claeys said. "And I think that they did a hell of a job in the fourth quarter up front.
"We got the ball back and they did just that; they didn't give them the ball."
Isn't it funny? If Northwestern could do that, where would they be? It's never a small feat to finish games, especially on the road against a team desperate to win.
The Gophers let their defense pull it out. Late in the third quarter, Trevor Siemian threw an inexplicably bad interception to linebacker James Manuel. That finally gave Minnesota the lead—with predictability costing the Wildcats.
"… Every time, when they had three receivers on one side, they threw above the string with No. 6 lined up as the third receiver," Manuel said. "I said I would just get outside a little farther than I would normally. They threw the slant underneath and I was happy to be right there to make the play."
Despite its struggles to move the ball, with some Mitch Leidner drives stalling, they calmly closed out the victory. No turnovers. No major miscues. No panic. It epitomized the "well-coached" game, one that left Northwestern gasping.
"There's no confidence that's down in that room," Pat Fitzgerald said of his team. "It's just a lot of disappointment of not doing a good enough job as a program to win."
While one team played to its strengths (mainly Ra'Shede Hageman), the other abandoned its running game once again. Siemian threw 46 passes, as a team that ran on 63 percent of its plays last year continued its reliance on throwing.
Like so many other things, Minnesota weathered the comeback—the late touchdown pass from Siemian to Tony Jones arriving shortly before Nelson iced the game.
There was nothing flashy, certainly nothing dominant about the Gophers' win. They overcame a brutal offensive pass interference call that thwarted one touchdown drive, but by the end, it felt so distant.
Motivated and calm, Minnesota earned it in a way that Northwestern could only dream of matching. It was a lesson in closing.