Thorson, Jackson lead Northwestern to 39-0 rout Minnesota
EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — It was cold, rainy and windy at Ryan Field on Saturday. Just the way Northwestern wanted it.
Clayton Thorson had three touchdown passes, Justin Jackson added 166 yards rushing on 31 carries and Northwestern won its sixth straight with a 39-0 rout of Minnesota.
The Wildcats (8-3, 6-2 Big Ten) also forced five turnovers on defense. Cornerback Montre Hartage had an interception and a fumble recovery to set up two touchdowns.
The bad weather certainly didn’t have a negative effect on Northwestern.
“I got out on the field for our early warmup and the guys were just embracing (it),” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I mean, it was awesome. They were jumping around going nuts.”
Thorson finished 9 of 13 for 86 yards despite the elements. Garrett Dickerson had two touchdown receptions and Northwestern rushed for 277 yards.
“We knew today would be a tough-guy day, a Chicago blue-collar day,” Fitzgerald said. “To see the way we dominated today in the elements, I think, is a statement about our seniors, about our leadership and about the character of our squad.”
Minnesota didn’t seem to adapt nearly as well.
Quarterback Demry Croft completed just 2 of 11 passes for 43 yards with three interceptions. Rodney Smith had 96 yards rushing for the Gophers (5-6, 2-6).
“I told our team we never really had opportunities to go win the football game because of the turnovers,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. “Five turnovers, six drops. When you have that, you’re not going to win many football games.”
Said running back Kobe McCrary: “We just hurt ourselves turning the ball over. It was muddy. It was hard. We just have to focus on the ball.”
Jackson has 1,010 yards on the season and became just the second Big Ten player - and 9th in FBS history - to rush for 1,000 yards in four straight seasons. Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne (1996-99) is the other Big Ten player.
Jackson has 5,139 career yards and moved past Michigan’s Mike Hart (5,040) for fifth place on the Big Ten’s all-time rushing list.
Northwestern has won 21 of the last 22 games in which Jackson has rushed for 100 yards or more.
“He’s a once in a coaching lifetime type of young man,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a terrific leader, he’s got an amazing work ethic and what you see on Saturday is a byproduct of his preparation. He’s done it from the minute he got here.”
Minnesota: The Gophers had dropped four of five games before breaking out for a 54-21 win over Nebraska last week. But any hopes that the performance could spark a late-season turnaround were quickly dashed on Saturday.
“It’s unfortunate, it hurts,” Fleck said. “It’s not pretty whatsoever and there are no excuses for it, so I take 100 percent blame. We got to get better.”
Northwestern: With a seventh straight win in the season finale next week, the Wildcats will be in line for a major bowl. The offense’s red zone efficiency has played a major role in the winning streak. By going 5 for 5 on Saturday (all touchdowns), the Wildcats have converted 27 of 28 red-zone trips into points during the streak.
The six straight wins are the most for Northwestern since a seven-game streak in 1996, Fitzgerald’s senior season.
Northwestern practiced in similar weather on Wednesday, and Fitzgerald believed that set the stage.
“If we could have played Wednesday, we could have put 80 on the board, and that’s no disrespect to Minnesota,” he said. “It was cold, it was nasty, it was raining. It was like a bunch of 8-year-olds jumping in puddles at a youth football practice.”
Alex Spanos, an NU strength coach, took embracing the elements to an extreme by wearing just a short-sleeve shirt on the sidelines. Video of him jumping around, firing up the players went viral during the game.
“You got to see it publicly today; you should see him behind closed doors,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s our secret sauce.”
It was Northwestern’s final home game, so the seniors were honored before the game.
“All things come to an end,” Jackson said. “Just to go out with that type of win was big.”
Minnesota: The Gophers host No. 4 Wisconsin in the regular-season finale on Saturday.
Northwestern: The Wildcats conclude the season at Illinois on Saturday.