No. 23 Northwestern blanks Minnesota
EVANSTON, Ill. — Justin Jackson’s senior season most aptly can be characterized as a record-breaking tear.
Having eclipsed Northwestern’s all-time rushing yardage and touchdown totals earlier in the season, Jackson reached another milestone Saturday. He joined Wisconsin legend Ron Dayne as the only Big Ten players to rush for 1,000 or more yards in four consecutive seasons.
Jackson is just the ninth player in the history of the FBS to reach that mark.
He rushed 31 times for 166 yards and Clayton Thorson finished 9 of 13 for 86 yards and three touchdowns as the 23rd-ranked Wildcats rolled past Minnesota 39-0 in its final home game of the season.
“You think about his career, and the milestone he set today. ... He’s a once-in-a-coaching-lifetime type of young man,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said of Jackson. “He’s a terrific leader, he’s got an amazing work ethic, and what you see on Saturday’s is a by-product of his preparation. ... I don’t know if I’ll have the privilege of coaching one specific young man as special as Justin.”
Jackson was one of 20 seniors honored during pregame ceremonies, and one of eight senior starters.
“I definitely think a lot of us were happy with the way it ended,” Jackson said. “Just to go out with that type of win is big. We just went out there and made our own energy and had fun. ... We had a moment where we came together, all the seniors, and just kind of took in the moment after the game. It was pretty special.”
Northwestern (8-3, 6-2 Big Ten) rushed 55 times for a total of 277 yards and three touchdowns amid a snowy, overcast afternoon, and extended its win streak to six games following an 0-2 start to conference play.
After a scoreless first quarter, the Wildcats exploded for 25 points in the second quarter, amassing 124 yards of offense while the Golden Gophers managed only 30. Northwestern nearly doubled Minnesota’s yardage total on the day, mustering 363 yards to the Golden Gophers’ 182.
Minnesota (5-6, 2-6) was shut out just one week after its season-high scoring output, a 54-21 win over Nebraska. The last time Minnesota was shut out was also at Ryan Field in a 27-0 loss to Northwestern on Oct. 3, 2015.
The Golden Gophers committed five turnovers and never established any sort of offensive rhythm, gaining seven first downs on the day. Demry Croft completed just 2 of 11 pass attempts for 43 yards while tossing three interceptions, two of which led to Northwestern touchdowns.
“I think it comes down to just complete lack of experience,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said of Croft’s performance. “We’re teaching Demry to throw in rhythm. Five weeks ago, his feet were moving so fast, there was no rhythm. ... It starts with me. Maybe that’s not the best situation or the best call for that at that particular time.”
With 3:46 remaining in the first half, Croft was intercepted deep in Minnesota territory by Montre Hartage, who returned it to the Golden Gophers’ 15-yard line. Two plays later, the Wildcats took a 19-0 lead following Jelani Roberts’ 12-yard touchdown run, his only carry of the day.
“I think we got behind the score very quickly and that forced us to do some other things (offensively),” Fleck said. “It felt like we had the ball for a few plays and just gave it to them. Had the ball for a few more plays, gave it to them again. That was just the day.”
Northwestern closed the half with a seven-play, 51-yard drive that elapsed 2:08 and resulted in an 18-yard touchdown from Thorson to Garrett Dickerson, giving the Wildcats a 25-0 halftime lead. Dickerson finished with two catches for 26 yards and two touchdowns.
Minnesota finished one of 11 on third-down attempts, and reached the red zone only once before Croft’s third interception essentially sealed the shutout, as Northwestern melted the clock to close the game.
Rodney Smith was Minnesota’s lone bright spot on offense, rushing 18 times for 96 yards.
NOTES: Minnesota entered the game tied for second in the conference in sacks allowed (14) but surrendered six sacks to Northwestern. ... Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson had a season low 86 passing yards, yet matched his season high with three touchdown passes. ... Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck is 1-1 against Northwestern as a coach. The Wildcats lost their season opener last year 22-21 to Western Michigan, where Fleck coached from 2013-16. ... Northwestern LB Paddy Fischer recorded his 100th tackle of the season late in the fourth quarter. Fischer is the team’s leading tackler, and entered the game ranked second in the Big Ten in total tackles.