By Jack McCarthy
EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — Minnesota coach Jerry Kill may be on a health-related leave but he wasn’t about be stuck at home Saturday.
So Kill hopped in a car with his wife, Rebecca, at the wheel and arrived at Northwestern’s Ryan Field in time to give his Golden Gopher team an unexpected lift.
With the third-year coach watching from a skybox, Minnesota rallied in the second half to upend the host Wildcats 20-17.
“If the coach can make the effort to get here and drive, we can dig a little bit deeper and play just a little bit harder,” acting Gophers coach Tracy Claeys said. “It would be special to be able to finish it off. I’m so proud of them that they did that against a good football team.”
Kill, sidelined indefinitely as he deals with recent series of epileptic seizures, addressed his players at halftime and after the game.
“We saw him at halftime and it was shocker,” linebacker James Manuel said. “And then at the end of the game it was a special moment for the team, as a whole, hearing him speak. Having his presence there just really gave us a tremendous boost going into the second half.”
The Gophers (5-2, 1-2) turned two second half turnovers into scores as they snapped a two-game losing streak en route to their first Big Ten win.
Manuel broke a 7-7 tie with a 24-yard third quarter interception return and Chris Hawthorne turned another Wildcat turnover into a 34-yard field goal in the fourth.
Kill watched Manuel pick off Wildcat quarterback Trevor Siemian with 1:22 for a go-ahead score. The Gophers made it 17-7 just 87 seconds later on Hawthorne’s field goal after recovering a Wildcat fumble.
Hawthorne’s 38-yard field goal with 5:24 remaining made it 20-10. Northwestern cut the deficit to 20-17 on a 10-yard touchdown strike from Siemian to Tony Jones with 2:07 remaining.
Northwestern (4-3, 0-3) dropped its third straight but Wildcat coach Pat Fitzgerald remained upbeat.
“If we just go out and make a few more plays this thing turns right around,” he said. “We have five more games left to play, we’ve got five great opportunities ahead of us and that’s the way we’ve got to approach it.”
Gopher quarterback Philip Nelson was 8-of-11 for 112 yards, including a touchdown strike to Derrick Engel. Running back David Cobb rushed 20 times for 103 yards.
Siemian completed 25 of 46 passes for 234 yards but was picked off twice and fumbled once. Jones had eight catches for 84 yards.
Northwestern opened the scoring on Stephen Buckley’s first career touchdown with 1:53 left in the first quarter. Buckley’s 3-yard score capped a drive on which he had a 33-yard reception and an 11-yard run.
Minnesota tied the game at 7-7 as Nelson hit Engel hit on a 29-yard touchdown pass with 6:48 left in the first half.
Hawthorne’s try for a go-ahead 44-yard field goal just before halftime sailed wide left.
Minnesota’s defense shut down a promising Northwestern drive deep into Gopher territory early in the final frame. The Wildcats settled for a 35-yard Jeff Budzien field goal that cut the Gopher lead to 17-10 with 11:09 left in regulation.
After Hawthorne’s second field goal, Northwestern converted on three fourth downs in a 75-yard scoring drive that culminated in Jones’ 10-yard TD reception.
That proved to be the Wildcats’ last stand.
“We know we’re a good football team, a really, really good football team,” Wildcat linebacker Collin Ellis said. “Right now there’s a bad taste in our mouth; everyone is upset. As hard as we practiced last week, we have to practice that much harder this week.”
Two key Northwestern players were sidelined with reported ankle injuries: tailback Venric Mark and quarterback Kain Colter, who was dressed but only available in an emergency role.
Minnesota hosts Nebraska next Saturday while Northwestern travels to Iowa.