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updated: 11/19/2011 7:59 PM

Bowl eligible, Northwestern looking for even more

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  • Northwestern's Jordan Mabin breaks up a pass intended for Minnesota wide receiver Da' Jon McKnight on Saturday.

    Northwestern's Jordan Mabin breaks up a pass intended for Minnesota wide receiver Da' Jon McKnight on Saturday.
    Associated Press


A sense of urgency sunk in at Northwestern a few weeks ago, when the team lost five in a row.

It seemed to be on display again at the start of Saturday's game against Minnesota.

The Wildcats practically sprinted to the line of scrimmage after each play, snapping the ball roughly 20 seconds after the previous tackle.

The fast-paced offense produced 3 touchdowns in the opening 11 minutes. Northwestern couldn't keep it going but did enough to secure a 28-13 victory over the Gophers at Ryan Field.

With their fourth straight win, the Wildcats (6-5, 3-4) are eligible to play in a bowl game for the fourth straight season. They'll finish next week at home against Michigan State, which secured the Legends Division title Saturday by beating Indiana.

"Being bowl eligible for five straight years is something special, but we learned five years ago 6-6 can keep you home," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We know we've got to win this football game. This is our Big Ten championship game."

Northwestern grabbed additional inspiration from a reunion of the 1996 team, which earned a share of the Big Ten title a year after its shocking run to the Rose Bowl.

Steve Schnur, the starting quarterback those two seasons, served as honorary captain for Saturday's contest, and former coach Gary Barnett also was on hand. The group was introduced at halftime.

"It gives you a sense of tradition," safety Brian Peters said. "It makes you feel really good about the program to have their Big Ten championships in the room."

Peters was the Wildcats' star of the game defensively. Despite having his right hand in a cast, he intercepted a pass, forced and recovered a fumble and was credited with 11 tackles. He broke a bone in his hand during the first half of the Nebraska game two weeks ago.

"We're still not satisfied as a team," Peters added. "Six wins are cool. Yeah, we're bowl eligible, but we're going for seven and Sparty is standing in our way."

The turnovers were key, because Northwestern's defense gave up plenty of yards, especially on the ground. Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray ran for 147 yards, while running back Duane Bennett added 127.

If Minnesota receivers had hung on to a few perfect passes from Gray, Northwestern might have felt some pressure. As it turned out, the Gophers never got closer than 11 points after the first quarter.

Using the extreme hurry-up offense, it took the Wildcats just 6 plays and 86 seconds to get on the board after the opening kick. Dan Persa found backup quarterback Kain Colter for a 7-yard touchdown pass.

The quick pace continued as Minnesota answered with a 7-play, 66-yard drive to tie the score. Northwestern went back ahead with a 28-yard pass on fourth down from Persa to Demetrius Fields for the game's third touchdown in less than seven minutes.

The Wildcats got a defensive stop and made it 21-7 before the quarter ended on a 2-yard run by Treyvon Green.

"We're going to try to play with tempo as much as we possibly can," Fitzgerald said. "We thought we had an advantage, especially maybe with a little bit of lack of depth that they have right now in their program. It keeps some of their guys off the field."

Trailing 21-10, Minnesota got a first down at the Wildcats' 6 late in the third quarter.

That's when Gray's pass was deflected by Ibraheim Campbell and intercepted by Peters. Northwestern drove 80 yards after the pick and went ahead 28-10 on a 1-yard run by Jacob Schmidt with 11:02 remaining.

Persa (22-for-31, 216 yards) left the game late after taking a hard hit as he released a pass, but he said he just got the wind knocked out of him and could have returned.

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