MINNEAPOLIS — Running the speed option with remarkable ease, Northwestern’s Mike Kafka raced through the Minnesota defense for a record-setting 217 yards. Then he watched teammate Brendan Smith mimic some of his moves for the game-winning touchdown.
Smith grabbed a deflected ball and returned an interception 48 yards to score with 12 seconds remaining, sending Northwestern past stunned Minnesota 24-17 and spoiling homecoming for the 20th-ranked Gophers on Saturday.
“I got the ball and just thought, ‘Touchdown,”’ Smith said. “I think everyone should think that when they get the ball in their hands with however many seconds left. I tried to take it to the sideline and make something happen.”
Kafka did that nearly every time he touched the ball, often taking the snap and just sprinting around the end without even looking to pitch it. With C.J. Bacher’s streak of 25 straight starts stopped by a hamstring injury, Kafka stepped in and carried the ball 27 times. His 217 yards rushing set a school record for a quarterback to make up for a pair of interceptions.
“He played very well. That kid was good. It was like they had two running backs back there,” said Minnesota defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg. “He could run the ball just as good as he could throw it.”
The Wildcats (7-2, 3-2) moved into a fourth-place tie in the Big Ten with the Gophers (7-2, 3-2). Minnesota will likely still be favored to win its remaining three games and complete a sharp turnaround from last year’s 1-11 finish, but this one really hurt.
“We definitely had Rose Bowl intentions and intentions of winning out,” linebacker Lee Campbell said.
The second half was scoreless until the winning play, when the Gophers refused to drain the clock and go to overtime.
With 26 seconds left on second-and-7 at his own 29, Adam Weber dropped back to pass and looked for the conference’s leading receiver Eric Decker.
The ball glanced off Decker’s hands, was deflected again by Northwestern’s David Oredugba. It was about to harmlessly hit the turf at midfield until Smith plucked it out of the air and zig-zagged his way to the end zone.
“It’s my fault,” a glum Decker said, his left foot in a walking boot after a sprained ankle that hampered him in the second half.
Weber finished 31-for-51 for 328 yards and a touchdown, plus 53 yards on 16 rushing attempts, but the Gophers had trouble sustaining their offense all afternoon. They punting seven times, had five penalties and rushed for only 68 yards on 25 tries. Joel Monroe, who has missed two extra points this season, also missed a 20-yard field goal in the third quarter.
Though Decker was downcast, none of his teammates or coaches blamed him for the defeat.
“We look at the whole thing. We’ve got to get better,” coach Tim Brewster said.
Added Weber: “I think Eric catches the ball 99 out of 100 times there.”
Decker had 62 yards and a score, but he was hobbling around in the second half and had trouble getting open.
“We had to take away the dynamic duo. We had pretty good pressure for the most part. We tackled well in the secondary,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
His defense definitely deserved credit for this, but Kafka was the star of the show while Omar Conteh, who replaced the injured Tyrell Sutton at running back, couldn’t find any room. Conteh had 12 yards on 12 carries.
Kakfa went 12-for-16 for 143 yards and two first-half touchdowns through the air and gave the Wildcats their first 200-yard rusher since Sutton in 2005. Kafka, a junior from Chicago, smashed Zak Kustok’s mark of 115 yards rushing by a quarterback set in 2001.
“He does it every week in practice, so it doesn’t really impress us too much,” said Jeremy Ebert, who caught a perfectly placed 36-yard pass on third-and-5 for a touchdown to cap the opening drive. “The O-line just played great. Mike made awesome plays all day. He really stepped up for us.”
Kafka made two bad throws, and Traye Simmons picked off both of them. He returned the first one for an easy 18-yard interception that made it 14-10 Minnesota.
Just when it looked like the momentum shifted, Kafka and the Wildcats came roaring back. He raced for 53 yards on first down and was forced out of bounds at the 2 by Simmons. Then he found tight end Josh Rooks wide open for the go-ahead score.
“We’re a disciplined football team. That goes back to the young men we recruit,” Fitzgerald said. “Understand that to win a football game you’ve got to fight and scratch and claw for 60 minutes, and good things are going to happen for you.”