College football: Kickoff return for TD lifts Gophers
By Marcus R. FullerSt. Paul Pioneer Press MINNEAPOLIS -- With the Big Ten West Division lead on the line Saturday, the Gophers took a 14-10 lead into halftime. Jerry Kill's University of Minnesota teams entered the game with an 18-0 record when l...
By Marcus R. Fuller
St. Paul Pioneer Press
MINNEAPOLIS - With the Big Ten West Division lead on the line Saturday, the Gophers took a 14-10 lead into halftime.
Jerry Kill’s University of Minnesota teams entered the game with an 18-0 record when leading at the half.
That streak looked to be in jeopardy when Northwestern tied the score 17-17 with less than eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, driving 97 yards for a touchdown, aided by a disputed roughing-the-passer-penalty.
But Gophers sophomore cornerback Jalen Myrick responded with an electrifying 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, helping Minnesota hang on for a 24-17 victory in front of 49,051 at TCF Bank Stadium.
It was the Gophers’ first win at home over Northwestern in a decade and marked the team’s first 2-0 Big Ten start since 2004.
“This was a very good win for our program,” Kill said. “You have to win at home.”
Minnesota (5-1) had lost home games to Northwestern in 2008, 2010 and 2012. All three losses were decided by single digits and were tough to swallow.
Kill’s 21-13 loss to the Wildcats at home two years ago was during a 0-3 start to the Big Ten season, and he suffered a seizure after the postgame news conference.
Four years ago, the Gophers were 7-1 before falling 24-17 against Northwestern at the Metrodome, which was the start of a five-game losing streak to end the season.
That was also the last time they were nationally ranked.
The question came up after Saturday’s victory against the Wildcats if Minnesota deserved to crack the top 25 this week.
“That’s up to the people that rank,” said senior running back David Cobb, who had 30 carries for 97 yards in the win.
While Saturday’s win might not be good enough to get the Gophers ranked, it did prove that the balanced offensive performance in the Michigan win two weeks ago was no fluke.
The numbers weren’t huge but quarterback Mitch Leidner threw for 153 yards and a touchdown while leading the offense to 7 of 13 converting on third downs, including 4 of 5 in the first half.
Two weeks ago, the Michigan win seemed to give Minnesota its biggest victory under Kill -- giving the program the Little Brown Jug for the first time since 2005.
But the Wolverines suffered a third straight loss a week ago.
Northwestern, though, bounced back from two straight losses to open the season to be the surprise of the Big Ten with a 2-0 start after upsetting Penn State and Wisconsin.
Suddenly, Minnesota’s home conference opener Saturday became tougher than first thought entering the Big Ten -- and a lot more meaningful in the early conference standings.
The Gophers are now tied with Iowa leading the West division at 2-0, ahead of 2-1 Northwestern. Wisconsin, Nebraska and Purdue follow at 1-1.
Minnesota will be favored in the next two games against Purdue for homecoming and at Illinois the following week; making a 7-1 record and 4-0 Big Ten start realistic.
But staying in the moment has been key for the Gophers all season. And it helped them respond to a tough call on Northwestern’s game-tying drive at the end of the fourth quarter Saturday.
Kill’s defense thought it came up with the most critical stop of the game when Wildcats quarterback Trevor Siemian’s pass was incomplete on third-and-goal from the 10-yard line.
But cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun was called for a questionable roughing the passer penalty after running into Siemian trying to deflect the ball.
Kill furiously disputed the call on the sideline and picked up an unsportsmanlike penalty. That set Northwestern up for an easy touchdown on a Siemian 2-yard run on the next play. Just like that it was 17-17.
“There’s a big emphasis on protecting the quarterback. So I understand that,” Kill said. “But I know I threw my headset down. So I’ll leave it at that.”
Fans were still showering the field with jeers at the referees when Myrick caught the ensuing kickoff in the end zone.
He shot out like a bullet down the left sideline for the deciding score with 6:20 left.
It was the fourth 100-yard kickoff return touchdown in team history, first since Jermaine Mays in 2000.
The Wildcats threatened to put together a game-tying drive on the next possession with Siemian converting a fourth-down pass to Kyle Prater for 14 yards.
But Prater dropped another pass on fourth down with 1:35 remaining to seal Minnesota’s first Big Ten home win.
“Like I told our kids after the game, we played six games and we’re about halfway up the mountain,” Kill said, “and that mountain gets a whole lot steeper.”