Minnesota and Northwestern entered their game Saturday as unlikely leaders in the Big Ten West Division, and it was the unlikeliest of plays that determined their meeting’s outcome.
Sophomore cornerback Jalen Myrick returned just his second kickoff as a Gopher and took it 100 yards for the game-winning touchdown in a 24-17 victory. It was the Big Ten’s first kickoff return for a touchdown this year.
“With Jalen, we’ve got a shot,” Minnesota Coach Jerry Kill said. “Jalen caught that ball and that’s when people found out how fast that kid is. He had great blocks and great execution and then he finished. That was the best thing that he did. Kicking game was the difference.”
Myrick atoned for a pass interference penalty on Northwestern’s previous drive. The Wildcats drove 97 yards up the field for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.
“We just didn’t do our jobs,” Northwestern cornerback Nick VanHoose said about the kickoff. “That’s what it came down to.”
The win keeps Minnesota (5-1, 2-0 Big Ten) in a first-place tie atop the West Division with rival Iowa (5-1, 2-0). It’s Minnesota’s first 2-0 Big Ten start in 10 years.
The Gophers have a shot to keep it going. They play Purdue and Illinois before taking off a week and then playing host to rival Iowa (5-1, 2-0).
But Minnesota tries to keep everything in perspective.
“The biggest thing is to be levelheaded, and to not get too high or too low,” Minnesota running back David Cobb said. “I think the team responded well. We celebrated the win, which we should have. And we prepared well this week, and we will celebrate this one and prepare for next week.”
Northwestern (3-3, 2-1) hardly is out of the West Division race. But the Wildcats face one of its toughest opponents this week in Nebraska (5-1, 1-1), which was idle. The winner stays in the thick of divisional competition.
“This division is really competitive. We knew that going in,” Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “One of the most impressive games I’ve seen in a long time on tape was the way Minnesota played against Michigan.
”Our guys were ready to play, for the most part I thought we handled things — but we didn’t dominate or make the big plays.”
Michigan State (5-1, 2-0) suddenly appears vulnerable on defense. The Spartans held a 21-point lead entering the fourth quarter at Purdue, but the Boilermakers (3-4, 1-2) scored a pair of touchdowns early and had the ball down one score late in the game. Michigan State then pressured Purdue quarterback Austin Appleby into an interception that Darien Harris returned for a touchdown to seal a 45-31 win.
“When you look at our football games, we’re playing well enough to get up by 21 points and that’s the first thing you have to be able to do,” Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio said afterward. “When they come back, we somehow find a way at the end. I think that it makes us a stronger football team.”
But there has to be concerns for the Spartans, who have allowed 54 of its 134 points in the fourth quarter. Michigan State led Nebraska 27-3 entering the fourth quarter before holding on 27-22. In its only loss, Michigan State gave up 28 points in the game’s final 20 minutes.
Conversely, Purdue has shown some life after losing nine consecutive Big Ten games to open Darrell Hazell’s coaching era. The Boilermakers stopped Illinois 38-27 last week and nearly pulled out an upset on Saturday.
“Anytime you play a good football team, you need to keep close,” Hazell said. “I thought we fought hard and had a chance to tie it up at the end. We have to get better. That’s the whole key for our program. When we play a good football team we have to make big plays and reduce the margin from what it was.”
Indiana RB Tevin Coleman rushed for 219 yards and three TDs against Iowa. ... Minnesota LB Damien Wilson had 15 tackles. ... Iowa QB Jake Rudock passed for 210 yards and two touchdowns. ... Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon ran for 175 yards and scored four touchdowns.
Purdue RB Akeem Hunt ran for 96 yards and three touchdowns. ... Michigan State WR Tony Lippett hauled in seven passes for 138 yards and a score. ... Northwestern freshman RB Justin Jackson had 156 total yards. ... Illinois returner V’Angelo Bentley returned five kickoffs for 131 yards and two punts for 39 yards. ... Michigan WR Devin Funchess caught seven passes for 69 yards and a touchdown. ... Penn State linebacker Mike Hull had 11 tackles, including two for loss, and broke up one pass.
1. Michigan State (1) 5-1 2-0
Achilles’ heel in the fourth quarter?
2. Ohio State (2) 4-1 1-0
Hitting stride after early stumble
3. Nebraska (3) 5-1 1-1
Separation Saturday in Evanston
4A. Iowa (5A) 5-1 2-0
Offense gets on track; will defense do the same?
4B. Minnesota (5B) 5-1 2-0
Gophers a true contender in Big Ten West
4C. Rutgers (5C) 5-1 1-1
Gets a major test this week at Ohio State
4D. Wisconsin (5D) 4-2 1-1
Relied on the run game and it paid off
4E. Maryland (5E) 4-2 1-1
Crucial game for respectability and bowl chances against Iowa
4F. Northwestern (4) 3-3 2-1
Special teams cost Wildcats control of the West
10. Michigan (12) 3-4 1-2
Finally something positive for the Wolverines
11. Penn State (11) 4-2 1-2
Gutsy call gave Lions a shot; official’s blown call took it away
12. Indiana (5F) 3-3 0-2
Season could hinge upon quarterback Nate Sudfeld’s return
13. Purdue (14) 3-4 1-2
Boilermakers no longer an easy out in Big Ten competition
14. Illinois (13) 3-4 0-3
Didn’t get clubbed like expected but still way down the standings
Iowa 5-1 2-0
Minnesota 5-1 2-0
Northwestern 3-3 2-1
Nebraska 5-1 1-1
Purdue 3-4 1-2
Wisconsin 4-2 1-1
Illinois 3-4 0-3
Michigan State 5-1 2-0
Ohio State 4-1 1-0
Rutgers 5-1 1-1
Maryland 4-2 1-1
Penn State 4-2 1-2
Michigan 3-4 1-2
Indiana 3-3 0-2
Iowa 45, Indiana 29
Minnesota 24, Northwestern 17
Wisconsin 38, Illinois 28
Michigan State 45, Purdue 31
Michigan 18, Penn State 13
Idle: Ohio State, Maryland, Rutgers, Nebraska
Iowa at Maryland, 11 a.m. (ESPN2)
Purdue at Minnesota, 11 a.m. (BTN)
Rutgers at Ohio State, 2:30 p.m. (ABC)
Michigan State at Indiana, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Nebraska at Northwestern, 6:30 p.m. (BTN)
Idle: Penn State, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin
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