EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — Losses keep piling up. Frustration is mounting.
For Minnesota, this season probably can’t end soon enough.
The Golden Gophers fell behind early and never really recovered in a 28-13 loss to Northwestern on Saturday. There’s one more game against struggling Illinois, a chance to end a brutal season on a positive note, so that’s what they’ll try to do.
“It is really frustrating,” said Duane Bennett, who ran for 127 yards. “The only thing you can do is keep going back to the drawing board. Keep getting better. The minute you quit that’s the minute that it’s over.”
On Saturday, Dan Persa threw for 216 yards and two touchdowns, and Northwestern won its fourth in a row.
Venric Mark came through with two big kickoff returns as the Wildcats (6-5, 3-4 Big Ten) scored touchdowns on their first three possessions to build a 21-7 lead. That set the tone as Northwestern became eligible for its fourth straight bowl appearance.
If it seems like a modest accomplishment, consider where this team was when this streak began.
The Wildcats lost five in a row after winning their first two and appeared to be going nowhere, but they turned it around in a big way with lopsided wins over Indiana and Rice sandwiched around a tight stunner at Nebraska.
Minnesota, meanwhile, has a long way to go.
The first season under Jerry Kill has been difficult on just about every front. The Golden Gophers coach has dealt with seizures this season while trying to rebuild this program after successful runs at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois
“We bled and gave everything we could at Southern Illinois,” he said. “We went through something like this. We gave everything we could at Northern Illinois. We’re going to do the same at the University of Minnesota.”
On Saturday, Minnesota (2-9, 1-6) got solid performances from MarQueis Gray and Bennett but simply couldn’t pull this one out.
Gray ran for 147 yards and a touchdown and threw for 124, but completed just 9 of 21 passes and got picked off once. Bennett finished with a season-high 127 yards rushing, 78 in the first half, and now has 2,082 in his career. And Minnesota ran for a season-high 269 yards in a losing effort.
“We all want to win,” defensive back Kim Royston said. “When you see us get better every week, but we still continue every now and then shoot ourselves in the foot.”
Minnesota had two deep drives stall, settling for a field goal after getting to the Wildcats’ 10 in the second quarter and coming away with nothing late in the third when it was threatening to make it a four-point game.
Instead, Ibraheim Campbell tipped a 9-yard pass intended for Brandon Green in the end zone and Brian Peters made the interception. That led to an 80-yard Northwestern drive, with Schmidt running it in from the 1 on a pitch to make it 28-10 early in the fourth and seal the victory.
The Wildcats will try to strengthen their standing against Michigan State next week, but they can breathe a little easier knowing they have enough wins to make a bowl. Not too easily, though.
A 6-6 record wasn’t enough to get the 2007 team to a bowl, and that fact wasn’t lost on the current group.
With coach Gary Barnett and players from the 1996 Citrus Bowl team on hand for a halftime ceremony, Northwestern took control early and prevailed after an offensive lull in the middle of the game.
Persa was sharp again after throwing for a personal-best 372 yards and matching a high with four TD passes against Rice, going 22 of 31 with an interception.
Jeremy Ebert had a relatively quiet day with 62 yards receiving after setting career highs the previous two weeks with 147 yards against Nebraska and 208 against Rice.
Mark’s 44-yard return on the opening kickoff and 42-yarder on Northwestern’s next possession led to touchdowns, helping the Wildcats build that early lead. And in the end, Minnesota was shrugging off another loss.
“We’re getting better,” Bennett said. “At the same time it’s the little things that we haven’t figured out yet.”
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