Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota's amazing rise this season has followed a pattern, and Saturday's game against Northwestern seemed to be falling right in line.
Despite a slow start, the 17th-ranked Gophers showcased the opportunistic play that fueled their 7-1 start. Cornerback Traye Simmons gave Minnesota its first lead in the second quarter with a 23-yard interception return for a touchdown. It marked the Gophers' nation-leading 25th turnover and their third defensive touchdown of the season.
From there, quarterback Adam Weber went to work, as he has all season, methodically moving the offense downfield. As Northwestern tried to take away top target Eric Decker and stuff the run, Weber went elsewhere, and five other receivers had multiple receptions. The Gophers converted 8-of-18 third downs. They held the ball for more than 10 minutes in both the second and third quarters.
Most important, Minnesota avoided major mistakes.
Until the final minute.
Northwestern safety Brendan Smith's 48-yard return of a tipped Weber pass proved to be the difference in a 24-17 Wildcats victory. After making opponents pay the entire season, the Gophers came up short in their type of game.
"It was like a punch to the stomach, but what can you do?" Gophers linebacker Lee Campbell said. "They made the play they needed to make to win the game."
Minnesota could have gone to overtime but opted to attack the Northwestern defense, which has been vulnerable at times this season. Weber, who had one interception in his previous 172 attempts, called the pass "a pretty safe play," but Northwestern cornerback David Oredugba jumped the route and tipped the ball to Smith after it glanced off Eric Decker's hands.
The Gophers were shut out in the second half for the first time this season despite outgaining Northwestern 395-363.
"I don't think we came out on offense with the right mind-set," said Weber, who completed 31 of 51 passes for 327 yards with a touchdown and the pivotal pick.
Simmons had two interceptions and the defense held Northwestern's offense scoreless in the second half, but backup quarterback Mike Kafka ran for 217 yards and the Wildcats reached Gophers territory three times after halftime.
"The last play isn't what beat us," head coach Tim Brewster said. "It was the entire game. We didn't have an answer for Kafka and they took advantage of it."
In the past, losses like Saturday's spelled doom for Minnesota, but this team has shown poise and leadership all season. Michigan comes to town next week at 2-7, without much to play for, but the Wolverines have never lost at the Metrodome.
Minnesota's ability to respond will be put to the test.
"It's going to be different from the past," senior defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg said. "We have to be able to bounce back."