EVANSTON, ILL. – One more defensive stop. Or one more first down gained. That's all the Gophers needed to win in regulation.
Instead, they blew a 21-point fourth-quarter lead to Northwestern, which got the tying 11-yard touchdown pass from Ben Bryant to A.J. Henning with 2 seconds left in the fourth quarter Saturday night.
Then in overtime, the Gophers settled for Dragan Kesich's 20-yard field goal, and the Wildcats, on their first play of the extra session, got a 25-yard touchdown pass on a throwback play from Bryant to a wide-open Charlie Mangieri for a 37-34 victory in front of an announced 20,148 at Ryan Field.
"Completely unacceptable in the fourth quarter. Period," Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said.
The loss dropped the Gophers to 2-2 overall and 1-1 in the Big Ten, while Northwestern — a team that entered Saturday with an 11-game losing streak against Power Five opponents — improved to 2-2 and 1-1.
Bryant completed 33 of 49 passes for 396 yards and four touchdowns. His favorite target, wide receiver Bryce Kirtz hauled in 10 passes for 215 yards and two TDs, including an 80-yarder.
The Gophers got the ball first in overtime and reached the Wildcats 10-yard line on Athan Kaliakmanis' 15-yard completion to Corey Crooms Jr. After Bryce Williams gained 7 yards on first-and-goal and 1 yard on second down, tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford couldn't haul in Kaliakmanis' pass near the goal line on third down.
"That ball to Brev, I should have placed a better ball," Kaliakmanis said.
The loss spoiled a big day for Gophers true freshman running back Darius Taylor, who rushed 31 times for 198 yards and two touchdowns. Kaliakmanis completed his first eight passes as the Gophers built a 24-7 halftime lead. The QB finished 14-for-19 for 191 yards and two TDs.
Taylor had his third consecutive 100-yard game by halftime, carrying 18 times for 137 yards before intermission. He had a 41-yard burst to set up a field goal in the second quarter and broke a tackle on fourth-and-1 and ran 43 yards for a third-quarter TD for the 31-10 lead. Taylor left the game because of an undisclosed injury after his final carry. Fleck did not have an immediate update but said, "hopefully, it's nothing serious."
Taylor's efforts wouldn't be enough because the Gophers defense, done in by big plays in last week's loss at North Carolina, crumbled in the fourth quarter. Minnesota surrendered 169 yards in the fourth quarter and allowed the Wildcats to convert five of six third-down situations.
The comeback started when Cam Porter's 1-yard TD run capped an 11-play, 75-yard drive that cut the lead to 31-17 with 12:01 left.
Then after a Gophers three-and-out on offense, Northwestern needed only 39 seconds to cut the lead to 31-24 with 9:46 to play. Bryant connected with Kirtz on gains of 21, 31 and 17 for the touchdown.
Northwestern got the ball back with 6:12 left, but the Gophers forced the Wildcats to punt. Minnesota got a first down on Kaliakmanis' 19-yard option keeper, but no more. On third-and-2 from the Northwestern 36, Taylor was stopped a 1-yard loss.
"As an offense, we've just got to keep executing," Kaliakmanis said. "Keep it going."
Facing fourth-and-3, Fleck opted to punt. Quentin Redding was in position to down the ball inside the 5 but instead drifted into the end zone and fielded the ball for a touchback.
"He's really good at what he does," Fleck said of Redding. "He just happened to lose track of where he was, unfortunately."
With 2:07 left and no timeouts remaining, Northwestern started its tying drive. A facemask call on Gophers defensive end Jah Joyner moved the ball to the Minnesota 48. A 16-yard pass on third-and-12 from Bryant to Thomas Gordon moved the ball to the 23.
Bryant then found Henning for 12 yards to the Minnesota 11 and spiked the ball with 8 seconds left. Tyler Nubin and Tre'Von Jones broke up an end zone pass to Johnson. Bryant then hit Henning on a slant for the tying score with 2 seconds left.
"Eyes in the wrong spot, tackling, lack of communication — pretty much all of it," Fleck said of the reasons for the defensive breakdowns.
Added defensive end Danny Striggow: "Football's a four-quarter game. You can't expect to win a lot of games when you don't play four quarters."
Northwestern's rally overshadowed a solid first half for the Gophers, who scored their first TD on Kaliakmanis' 9-yard pass to Le'Meke Brockington on the play after Minnesota defensive tackle Kyler Baugh forced and recovered a Wildcats fumble.
Early in the second quarter, the Gophers took a 14-0 lead on a nine-play, 68-yard drive capped by Taylor's 1-yard run. The key play on the march was Crooms' spectacular one-handed catch for a 27-yard gain to the Northwestern 22. Taylor then ripped off runs of 8, 5 and 8 yards.
The Gophers marched 72 yards in six plays to stretch the lead to 21-0 on Kaliakmanis' 18-yard TD pass to Daniel Jackson with 2:50 left in the half.
Northwestern answered quickly with Bryant's 80-yard TD pass to Kirtz, who got behind Gophers cornerback Justin Walley and sprinted into the end zone to cut the lead to 21-7 with 2:06 left in the half.
The Gophers made it 24-7 with 1:04 left in the half on Kesich's 50-yard field goal, set up by Taylor's 41-yard run and an 8-yard gain by Kaliakmanis, who hurdled a Wildcats defender.
Afterward, Fleck said his team will need to regroup quickly.
"Very disappointing, incredibly disappointing," he said. "I mean, this is one that stings.''