MINNEAPOLIS -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has been juggling quarterbacks over the last few weeks, looking for the right combination to get his offense into a rhythm.
It didn't matter who was back there on Saturday against Minnesota, as long as he handed the ball to Venric Mark.
Mark rushed for 182 yards and two touchdowns to carry Northwestern to a 21-13 victory over Minnesota on Saturday.
Mark wasn't touched on scoring runs of 26 and 48 yards and the Wildcats (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten) overcame 11 penalties to become bowl eligible and spoil Minnesota's homecoming celebration.
"The game plan was to run the ball down their throat," Mark said. "Seven of our first 10 plays were run plays, so our goal was to come in here and mulch them up."
Done and done. Of Northwestern's 275 total yards, 208 of them came on the ground.
MarQueis Gray rushed for 86 yards and a touchdown after missing the previous two games with knee and ankle injuries. But he also threw an interception and was injured again late in the third quarter for the Golden Gophers (4-2, 0-2).
The Gophers had a chance for a tying touchdown late, but Northwestern's defense stiffened at the 6-yard line to keep them out of the end zone. Cornerback Nick VanHoose made the key play on the stand, batting a pass away from A.J. Barker in the end zone to save a touchdown.
"We're a scary team right now from a standpoint we haven't put it all together yet. ... We've got to put three phases of football together, and if we do that we got a chance to be a darn good football team," Fitzgerald said. "Today, two out of three, that's what it felt like."
It was just enough.
Less than 10 seconds into the game, Northwestern was already up 7-0. Gophers linebacker Lamonte Edwards, a converted running back, botched the opening kickoff and C.J. Bryant pounced on it to give the Wildcats the ball at Minnesota's 26-yard line.
Mark took the handoff, burst through the line and saw nothing but daylight, racing 26 yards untouched for the score.
That would be a common theme throughout the first half. Mark added a 48-yard scoring run in the second quarter, a burst through the middle where nary a finger was laid on him. He also had runs of 47 and 25 yards in the first half to help the Wildcats take a 21-10 lead.
Mark's big day on the ground eliminated any need for Northwestern's passing game, and that was a good thing for the Wildcats. Kain Colter was 10 for 10, but for just 63 yards. And Trevor Siemian, the passing specialist in the Wildcats' two-quarterback system, was 1 for 7 for 4 yards.
Mark's big 48-yard TD helped neutralize a brief bit of momentum for the Gophers.
When Max Shortell went out with an injured left hand late in the first quarter, Gray ripped off a 25-yard touchdown run at the start of the second to pull Minnesota to 14-10.
But David Nwabuisi made an acrobatic, one-handed interception off of a pass tipped by Quentin Williams to stall the Gophers. Mark was off to the races two plays later, and the Wildcats were on their way to a rebound victory after losing at Penn State last week.
It was another disappointing effort for the Gophers, who were starting to create some optimism on campus with a 4-0 start to the season. But a 31-13 thumping at Iowa two weeks ago brought them back down to earth, and they followed that up with a sloppy, mistake-prone performance coming out of their bye.
They fumbled the ball seven times, losing two, and committed nine penalties.
"That's what Northwestern does," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "If you make a mistake, they make you pay for it."
The turnovers were compounded by three bad snaps from center Zac Epping and some curious play-calling that stunted several drives. After calling time out and pulling their offense off the field on fourth-and-11 from Northwestern's 36, they ran kicker Jordan Wettstein out for a 53-yard field-goal try. The Wildcats weren't buying it from the start, and a fake run was thwarted easily to turn the ball over.
"Our defense came through at the end," Mark said. "I personally think they won the game for us."
On third-and-13 from the Northwestern 46, they called a draw to Donnell Kirkwood that gained just 5 yards. And with no timeouts and the ball at their own 49 with just over a minute to play in the first half, the Gophers called a draw to Gray that went nowhere and took any chance of a late score out of the equation.