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Gophers get back on track in win over Northwestern

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Minnesota Golden Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan (2) passes against the Northwestern Wildcats during the first half Saturday, Nov. 23, at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. David Banks / USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON, Ill. — Northwestern’s Ryan Field is adorned with two big signs reading: “Home of the 2018 Big Ten West Champions.”

On Saturday, Nov, 23, the Minnesota Gophers offense’s opening drive went toward that declaration on the wall behind the stadium’s north end zone. They were looking to “respond” — P.J. Fleck’s word of the week — after their perfect record was ruined by a slow start against the Iowa Hawkeyes seven days prior.

Rashod Bateman capped that drive with a leaping catch and one foot down in the end zone, and Minnesota rode that fast start to a 38-22 win over Northwestern. The victory propelled the Gophers one step closer to meeting their goal of becoming the West’s 2019 champs.

That final step will come next Saturday when Minnesota (10-1, 7-1 Big Ten) plays Wisconsin (9-2, 6-2) in the West Division’s championship game at TCF Bank Stadium. The Badgers did their part, sidestepping Purdue’s upset bid in a 45-24 win later Saturday afternoon in Madison.

The Gophers had to weather an emotional high in their upset win over then-fourth-ranked Penn State and the letdown to the No. 20 Hawkeyes, with the potential trap game against the last-place Wildcats. All while one eye has been cast ahead to the added stakes expected in the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe next week.

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“Everybody is talking about a week out and you’ve got to stay focused on one week. It’s very difficult to do, and that is fighting human nature every single day,” Fleck said.

Minnesota roared out to a 21-0 start in its bid to reach 10 regular-season victories for the first time since 1905 — a victory that would give the Gophers seven Big Ten wins for the first time ever and four road triumphs for the first time since 2003.

Quarterback Tanner Morgan returned from a concussion suffered late in the Iowa game to have a banner day. His four touchdown passes set a new Gophers single-season record of 26.

Three of Morgan’s TDs went to Bateman and another found Tyler Johnson, while running back Shannon Brooks added the remaining touchdown on the ground.

Minnesota’s offense had 423 yards against a reputable Northwestern defense that was giving up 290 yards a game. They had 38 points, while the Wildcats had been giving up 23.

The Gophers’ defense, meanwhile, kept a bad Wildcats offense to fewer than 100 passing yards and only 222 total.

The Gophers’ 9-0 start was the best in 115 years, and the beginning of Saturday’s game resembled lopsided games of that era, like when Minnesota clocked Twin Cities Central High School 107-0 in 1904.

Morgan and Bateman connected on a second beautiful touchdown pass, with Bateman resembling a “ballerina,” according to Morgan, in getting one foot down in the end zone.

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Then safety Antoine Winfield Jr. had a strip sack that knocked Wildcats starting quarterback Hunter Johnson out of the game and resulted in a 10-yard loss.

The Wildcats looked outclassed like that Central High squad as they were down to theirfourth-string quarterback, Andrew Marty.

But the forming avalanche subsided when U punt returner Demetrius Douglas failed to catch a punt at the 26-yard line, and it rolled to the 6.

Morgan avoided a sack on the next play but was called for intentional grounding in the end zone for a safety. Northwestern followed that with a touchdown on a 9-yard Marty pass to Jace James to make it 21-9 at the half.

The Gophers kept extending invitations for the Wildcats to make it more of a game. But in the second half, Minnesota kept Northwestern at arm’s length to set up the high-stakes rivalry game next week.

“We’ve still got to go and take care of business,” Bateman said.

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Minnesota Golden Gophers wide receiver Tyler Johnson (6) catches a pass as Northwestern Wildcats defensive back Cameron Ruiz (18) defends him during the first half at Ryan Field Saturday, Nov. 23. David Banks / USA TODAY Sports

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