MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota’s defense delivered an overpowering performance and Mitch Leidner threw his first touchdown pass in seven weeks, guiding the Gophers to a 29-12 victory over Northwestern on Saturday.
Emmit Carpenter made three field goals, Shannon Brooks totaled 110 yards from scrimmage and Blake Cashman and Steven Richardson each had two of Minnesota’s season-high seven sacks .
Leidner, playing at home for the final time, found Drew Wolitarsky from 9 yards out with 6:46 left and ran in a 12-yard score with 2:31 remaining to give the Gophers (8-3, 5-3) a cushion. The fifth-year senior, who was intercepted once, ended a five-game streak without a touchdown pass.
Austin Carr, the Big Ten’s leading receiver, had five catches for 68 yards for the Wildcats (5-6, 4-4) before leaving the field a bit woozy from a helmet-to-helmet hit by Minnesota safety Duke McGhee. The targeting penalty, the seventh time this season a Gophers player has received the automatic ejection, helped extend Northwestern’s first scoring drive that finished with a 4-yard touchdown run by Justin Jackson with 2:17 left in the third quarter that cut the lead to 15-6. Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald elected a 2-point conversion that was stopped.
Clayton Thorson threw for 276 yards and a late score, but the Wildcats were denied on fourth-and-1 at the Minnesota 16 in the second quarter and fourth-and-1 at the Gophers 13 in the third quarter.
With a kickoff temperature of 30 degrees, including an 18-degree wind chill factor, the Gophers played in front of their smallest crowd in eight seasons at TCF Bank Stadium — an announced 38,162 fans with less than half of that figure still in the seats by the fourth quarter. Minnesota’s average attendance this year was 43,814, the lowest since 2002 when the team played at the Metrodome.
Northwestern: With the Thorson-to-Carr connection quiet even before the star pass-catcher departed the game, the Wildcats were uncharacteristically unproductive on offense until they entered catch-up mode late and padded their statistics.
Minnesota: Eliminated earlier in the day from Big Ten championship game contention, the Gophers can still tie for first place in the West Division by upsetting Wisconsin and having Iowa beat Nebraska. They reached the eight-win mark for the third time in four seasons, a feat not accomplished by the program since 1905.
Northwestern: Hosting in-state rival Illinois on Saturday, the Wildcats need a win for bowl eligibility. They’ve beaten the Illini in three of the last four meetings.
Minnesota: Seeking their first victory over Wisconsin since 2003 on Saturday, the Gophers have not won at Camp Randall Stadium since 1994.