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Northwestern drops third in a row with loss to Minnesota

Coach PFitzgerald with wide receiver Rashad Lawrence lamented Northwestern’s three turnovers Saturday. | Nam Y. Huh/AP

Coach Pat Fitzgerald, with wide receiver Rashad Lawrence, lamented Northwestern’s three turnovers Saturday. | Nam Y. Huh/AP

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Updated: November 21, 2013 6:59AM

Things change so quickly.

Two weeks ago, Northwestern gave mighty Ohio State all it could handle before falling. And while the loss at Wisconsin was ugly, a win wasn’t expected.

But no amount of whipped cream is going to cover up what was exposed in the Wildcats’ 20-17 loss to Minnesota before 36,587 on a crisp autumn Saturday in Evanston.

Northwestern (4-3, 0-3 Big Ten) now is saddled with a three-game losing streak. Considering it’s likely to be the underdog in its next four games, even a bowl trip could be elusive for a team that had been considered a dark horse to do so much more.

Although its offensive stars, quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark, were sidelined by ankle injuries, NU knows it didn’t take care of business against the Golden Gophers (5-2, 1-2).

“Disappoint-ing. Dis-appointing,” coach Pat Fitzgerald kept saying, putting the accent on different syllables while repeating his mantra. “[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.”

Fingers will be pointed mainly at backup quarterback Trevor Siemian, whose two interceptions and one lost fumble — the only turnovers in the game — led to 10 Gophers points.

But Siemian also gave NU a chance to pull the game out of the fire with some clutch throws on the Cats’ final touchdown drive. That cut the deficit to three points with 2:07 left.

But the ensuing onside kick only went eight yards, and the defense, following its pattern of the day, couldn’t get a stop.

The defense, which had come up with 17 turnovers in NU’s first six games, had none against the Gophers.

“We can’t turn the ball over and expect to win a game like that,’’ Fitzgerald said. “We’ve been pretty salty in turnover ratio the last few years. To not do that today is disappointing.’’

An offense that was averaging 33.5 points went almost three quarters between touchdowns against a Minnesota defense that gave up 65 points in its first two Big Ten games.

“We have to play better,’’ NU 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.’’

Fitzgerald promised to stay steady at the tiller.

“It’s always tough not to be successful,’’ he 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.’’

Trouble is, in trips to Iowa and Nebraska, and in home dates with Michigan and Michigan State, the bar will be set higher than it was against the Gophers.

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