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Gophers dominated by Northwestern in 39-0 loss

Northwestern running back Justin Jackson (21) rushes past Minnesota wide receiver Yale Van Dyne (87) during the first half Saturday, Nov. 18, at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. Kamil Krzaczynski / USA TODAY Sports1 / 4
Minnesota quarterback Demry Croft (11) looks to pass the ball against Northwestern linebacker Paddy Fisher (42) during the second half Saturday, Nov. 18, at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. Kamil Krzaczynski / USA TODAY Sports2 / 4
Northwestern running back Justin Jackson (21) is tackled by Minnesota defensive back Duke McGhee (8) and defensive back Jacob Huff (2) during the first half Saturday, Nov. 18, at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. Kamil Krzaczynski / USA TODAY Sports3 / 4
Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) is tackled by Minnesota linebacker Blake Cashman (36) during the first half Saturday, Nov. 18, at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. Kamil Krzaczynski / USA TODAY Sports4 / 4

EVANSTON, Ill. — The Gophers' best Big Ten road record has been accumulated at Northwestern, but Ryan Field has been a house of horrid play for the Minnesota football team in their two previous visits.

In October 2015, the Gophers suffered their last shutout, 27-0, amid a 5-7 season. On Saturday, Nov. 18, Minnesota was marred by turnovers and plummeted in a 39-0 loss to the No. 23 Wildcats, falling to 5-6 with a rivalry game remaining against undefeated and fifth-ranked Wisconsin next Saturday, Nov. 25.

With a chilling and gusting wind, rain and snow flurries mixed in late, the game was a perfect storm of the corporal punishment possible when repeatedly turning the ball over. The deja vu from the way the 2015 defeat transpired carried over to in-game moments on Saturday.

Minnesota's season-high five turnovers led to four Northwestern touchdowns. The giveaways were put on platters as those scoring drives at the Gophers' 36-yard line or closer.

"They took advantage of every, everything that we gave them," Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said.

Minnesota, which is now 2-6 in the Big Ten, gave up 25 points in the second quarter — the most in any quarter this season — and failed to earn a takeaway for the third consecutive game.

A week after churning out more than 500 yards of total offense in the record-setting 54-21 victory over Nebraska, the Gophers offense managed less than 200 total yards and only seven first downs. Their lone third-down conversion came in the third quarter, and they couldn't manufacture a first down on 10 other occasions.

In the waning moments of the rout in front of only handfuls of hearty fans, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald gave 80 players some time the field on senior day.

Gophers quarterback Demry Croft went 2 for 11, with a handful of drops and three interceptions. Immediately after Minnesota's lone third-down conversion, receiver Phillip Howard was culpable for one pick as a Croft pass near the goal line bounce off his pads and into the hands of Northwestern's Nate Hall.

Croft's other picks were throwing to a covered Rashad Still and under-throwing an open Howard in the second and third quarters. Running backs Rodney Smith and Kobe McCrary averaged six yards per carry, but each had a lost fumble.

The Howard drop that became another turnover killed the Gophers' best drive — which had reached Northwestern's 11 after netting a game-high 51 yards. While it was in the third quarter, it all but ensured Minnesota's worst shutout defeat since the 58-0 shellacking to Michigan in 2011.

That drubbing came during then-coach Jerry Kill's first season, and Saturday's shutout loss also was in Fleck's first year at Minnesota. He had one shutout loss during his 1-11 debut season as a head coach at Western Michigan in 2013.

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson threw for only 86 yards but had three touchdowns. Running back Justin Jackson rushed for 166 yards, while three other backs accounted for the three rushing touchdowns.

With the wind at their back, the Gophers' opening two drives went into Northwestern territory, including a 36-yard pass play from Croft to Rashad Still on the first offensive play of the game. But both drives stalled with Croft being sacked on third down.

The failure to score early set the tone for a long and cold afternoon.

"The game got out of hand pretty quick," Fleck said.

While the Gophers fell to 23-21-2 at Ryan Field, they made haste in leaving Illinois and won't return to face the Wildcats until 2019.