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Northwestern victory against Minnesota sets up showdown with Nebraska

Northwestern running back Venric Mark ran for career-high 182 yards two touchdowns Saturday against Minnesota. | Andy King~AP

Northwestern running back Venric Mark ran for a career-high 182 yards and two touchdowns Saturday against Minnesota. | Andy King~AP

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Updated: November 15, 2012 6:49AM

MINNEAPOLIS — Northwestern’s defense showed up big, Venric Mark showed up bigger and even some ‘‘swag’’ showed up in the
aftermath of the Wildcats’ 21-13 victory Saturday against Minnesota.

All of which left NU and its backers to wonder what it might have been like if Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit had decided to show up in Evanston for the Wildcats’ game next week against Nebraska.

ESPN told NU it planned to send its ‘‘College GameDay’’ crew to Evanston for the game against the Cornhuskers until changing plans after the Wildcats’ fourth-quarter meltdown Oct. 6 at Penn State.

What had the makings of the biggest national spotlight on NU football in more than a decade quickly dimmed into a prove-something matchup in Minnesota just before the teeth of the Wildcats’ Big Ten schedule, including back-to-back games next month at Michigan and Michigan State.

But NU (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten) isn’t mulling the what-ifs any more than it is celebrating becoming the first team in the conference to reach bowl eligibility.

‘‘Our goal is not just to be bowl-eligible,’’ said Mark, who rushed for a career-high 182 yards and two touchdowns, including a 26-yard tone-setter 11 seconds into the game after the Wildcats recovered a Golden Gophers fumble on the opening kickoff. ‘‘What happened last week, yeah, it was [bad]. I think we should have won that game. But we can’t keep looking back on that for motivation. If we do that, then I personally don’t believe that we’ll win any more games.’’

What will win games — even rainy, sloppy, mistake-filled games like this one — is taking advantage of three turnovers by the other guys and not committing any of your own.

After Mark cashed in the first turnover for a touchdown, he did it again in the second quarter after linebacker David Nwabuisi’s interception near midfield. Mark ran for a 48-yard touchdown two plays later to give NU a 21-10 lead.

One side effect of the quick strikes, along with several offensive mistakes coach Pat Fitzgerald wasn’t happy about, was that the Wildcats’ defense — which wore down late against Penn State — spent too much time on the field.

This time, though, the defense turned back Minnesota twice in the final minutes, including for four downs inside NU’s 10-yard line with less than five minutes left.

The absence of Gophers playmaker MarQueis Gray for the final
18 minutes helped. So did the fact that Minnesota receiver Isaac Fruechte, who was all alone in the end zone, fell down as a potential game-changing pass headed his way with just less than six minutes left.

But defensive end Tyler Scott had two big sacks in the fourth quarter, cornerback Nick VanHoose made a huge play to break up a would-be touchdown pass in the closing minutes and a defense that had trouble a week earlier had its day Saturday.

‘‘A week ago, I thought our
defense gave us a chance to win the ballgame; they just ran out of gas at the end,’’ said Fitzgerald, who called the performance Saturday the best he has seen out of his
defensive line. ‘‘Our defense continued to just stiffen their chin as the game went along.’’

Now comes the real prove-it game, whether Corso and Herb-
streit care to show up or not.

‘‘I feel like we have a little swag to us now, and that’s good,’’ Mark said. ‘‘We shouldn’t get too high, but then we shouldn’t get too low. We’re a great team, and the opponents we’re going to face, they’re great teams, too.’’

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