EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — No matter how bad things were looking for Northwestern, the Wildcats insist they weren’t losing faith, that they could see this coming.
Four straight wins and bowl eligibility?
Not bad, considering where they were.
Dan Persa threw for 216 yards and two touchdowns, and Northwestern won its fourth in a row, beating Minnesota28-13 on Saturday.
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.
“In the middle of that losing streak, we knew we were a better team than that,” said Jacob Schmidt, who ran for 69 yards and a touchdown.
Only one of those losses was by more than 10 points, and the way Persa saw it, Northwestern could have won the first seven. The Wildcats squandered opportunities, particularly a big one against Illinois.
Persa helped them build an 18-point lead against the Illini before leaving after missing the first three games while recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon and watched them blow it in a 38-35 loss.
“When we were 2-5, we felt we could have been 7-0,” he said. “We were just letting teams come back on us. I think we were hurting ourselves, but for most of those games, we were up.”
For Minnesota? Well, it was just another rough day.
“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.”
Minnesota (2-9, 1-6) 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.
“Six wins doesn’t guarantee anything. We learned that lesson five years ago,” Schmidt said.
Even so, it was something that Fitzgerald has been harping on “for the last month, yeah, absolutely.”
“We put ourselves in position by the way that we played early, by beating ourselves,” he said.
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.
The Golden Gophers, meanwhile, got solid performances from Bennett and MarQueis Gray 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’s 127 yards was a season high, and he has 2,082 in his career.
“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.”
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