October 21, 2013 at 1:00 am

Matt Charboneau

Legends of the fall: 3 straight losses drop Northwestern as division contender

Minnesota's Damarius Travis breaks up a pass intended for Northwestern's Dan Vitale during the Gophers' 20-17 victory Saturday. Northwestern was a 121/2-point favorite, but ended up losing its third game in a row. (John J. Kim / Associated Press)

Two weeks ago, Northwestern was unbeaten and holding a fourth-quarter lead at home over Ohio State. A packed house at Ryan Field was going crazy and a national-television audience was watching.

But boy, how quickly things have changed for the Wildcats.

Ohio State rallied to win that game, Northwestern went on the road the next week and got throttled by Wisconsin, and to cap off a most disappointing stretch, the Wildcats lost at home on Saturday to Minnesota.

Quarterback Trevor Siemian, on his own with Kain Colter injured, threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown and fumbled on back-to-back plays as the Gophers held on for a 20-17 victory.

Three Big Ten games, three losses for a team that looked like it had as good a chance as any to win the Legends Division and play in the conference title game. Instead, they are wondering what is left to salvage of a once-promising season.

“Disappointing, disappointing,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “(Colter) is a dynamic playmaker. Not to have that type of weapon hurts, but there’s no excuses. Guys have to make the plays that winners make.

“I don’t have a magic pill or phrase to make (Siemian) feel any better, and not just him, everyone on our team. It’s gonna hurt. You can’t turn it over and expect to win. The football gods upstairs aren’t going to let you do that.”

And it appears they aren’t going to let the Wildcats up from what is quickly turning into a miserable season. The losses out of the division were tough enough, but with games still looming against the other Legends contenders — Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State — letting one get away against a double-digit underdog could prove to be critical.

Consider the fact Northwestern also has road games against Iowa and Illinois, and just becoming bowl eligible could start to become an issue.

“We have to play better,” linebacker Collin Ellis said. “We know we’re a good team. We just have to play better in all phases. Right now, it’s a bad taste in our mouths. As hard as we practiced last week, we have to practice that much harder this week.”

Two road games are next — at Iowa and Nebraska — and those games will tell a lot about the character o the Wildcats.

“It’s always tough not to be successful,” Fitzgerald said. “I see a team that’s not executing very well right now. We have to look at that. We’ve been pretty explosive offensively. There were some drops, some decisions and choices with the ball. All we have to do is make smart choices and we win a football game.”

Instead, most of Northwestern’s choices have been the wrong ones and winning football games is starting to seem like a distant memory in Evanston.

Gophers rally around Kill

As mystifying as Northwestern’s three-game skid is, Minnesota’s performance on Saturday was downright impressive.

It’s not that the Gophers set the world on fire or are guaranteed another victory the rest of the season, but considering they lost their coach two weeks ago, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to see them go in the tank, especially with a brutal schedule in the last half of the season.

But instead of fold the tent, what did coach Jerry Kill do Saturday? He and his wife jumped in the car and drove to Evanston and watched the Gophers pull off the upset.

“That gave us the little edge we needed,” quarterback Philip Nelson said.

Kill, an epileptic, has been plagued by seizures for years and especially since taking over at Minnesota. He suffered one just before the Michigan game on Oct. 5 and hasn’t been with the team since. It was the fifth time he has suffered a seizure on a game day while coaching the Gophers.

“I was asked if he would watch the game if he wasn’t there; I couldn’t answer it,” said defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, the acting head coach. “So that’s your answer: He jumps in a car and gets his wife to drive him. But it also shows you, those kids mean a lot to him, they really do.”

There’s still no timetable on when Kill might get back to work, but it’s hard to find a better feel-good story in the Big Ten.

“He told all of us he was proud of us, and that’s the best compliment you can get,” Claeys said. “He’s got a lot of hours a lot of time invested in this, and the other thing that makes this so special, we needed to win a game for the people of Minnesota.”

Where's the defense?

Plenty of defense played at the Big House on Saturday, eh?

What was the most alarming part of the better than 1,300 total yards amassed by the two teams? The 751 allowed by the Hoosiers didn’t set a Big Ten record – only because Indiana’s defense in 2004 managed to be worse. That’s the year Indiana allowed 763 yards in a loss to Purdue.

It was hard to figure if this one was about good offense or bad defense, but I’m leaning toward an issue with both defenses in Michigan’s 63-47 win.

Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner accounted for a school-record 584 yards and Jeremy Gallon set a conference mark with 369 receiving yards. That was a stat Indiana coach Kevin Wilson called “ridiculous.”

But what is ridiculous is that somewhere, someone mistook this for a good game. Sorry, but the complete inability to defend baffles me. You could trip and fall in front of a guy and defend better than these teams did, racking up missed tackles and blown assignments like they were at a premium.

“We’re getting close,” Indiana quarterback Tre Roberson said. “But they scored 63, so we’ve got to score one more.”

Not sure the math adds up there, Tre, but who can keep up when it’s an open door to the end zone?

“We’ll take advantage of the open date,” Wilson said as Indiana takes next week off, “and see what we can do down the stretch.”

They might want to start by remembering it’s not seven-on-seven.