EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) Pat Fitzgerald recently challenged his Northwestern defense to have more fun, celebrating the role the dominating unit has played in the Wildcats success this season.
His players appear to have gotten the message.
Northwestern turned in another impressive performance and Clayton Thorson scored two touchdowns and Justin Jackson ran for 120 yards as the No. 16 Wildcats shut out Minnesota 27-0 on Saturday.
The defense has allowed only three touchdowns in five games, and limited Minnesota to only 173 yards and shutting down the Gophers on all four of their fourth down conversion attempts.
While confidence has continued to grow for the defense over the first month of the season, beginning Big Ten play with a shutout proved to be a big step for Northwestern (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten).
''We made a statement to the whole Big Ten, but there's seven games left and right now, this is just one step,'' Northwestern senior defensive end Dean Lowry said.
Defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster forced a fumble by Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner that linebacker Anthony Walker returned 13 yards for a touchdown that gave the Wildcats a 27-0 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Minnesota (3-2, 0-1) turned the ball over twice and struggled to build any rhythm offensively. The Golden Gophers punted seven times, unable to get either the run or pass game going.
''They don't make mistakes, they do their job,'' Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. ''They did their job today. They played harder than we did.''
That made life easy for Thorson - Northwestern's redshirt freshman quarterback who scored on runs of 5 yards and 1 yard.
Thorson's 1-yard touchdown run gave the Wildcats a 20-0 lead after Minnesota failed on fourth down deep in Northwestern territory. A Jackson 31-yard run helped set up the short scoring run.
Kicker Jack Mitchell gave Northwestern a 13-0 lead with a 23-yard field goal with 6:13 remaining in the third quarter. The kick came after a 32-yard, one-handed diving touchdown catch by Solomon Vault was overturned on review. Officials determined the ball hit the ground while Vault was tumbling to the ground.
Instead, Mitchell's field goal finished off a 19-play, 69-yard drive that ate up the first 8:47 of the second half. During the third quarter, Northwestern had possession of the ball for 11 minutes, 26 seconds.
''To chew up that amount of time with (Minnesota) having the wind was critically important for second-half success,'' Fitzgerald said.
Northwestern led 10-0 at halftime. Thorson scored on a 5-yard touchdown run with 1:36 remaining in the half. Miles Schuler set up the score with a 55-yard punt return, giving the Wildcats the ball at the Minnesota 5.
Thorson also passed for 128 yards, connecting on 14 of 19 attempts.
Mitchell gave Northwestern with a 3-0 lead midway through the second quarter.
Leidner completed 10 of 21 passes while the Gophers running game - led by Shannon Brooks' 33 yards - covered only 74 yards.
Despite that, Minnesota receiver KJ Maye said the Gophers struggles to execute was more of their own doing.
''They were average,'' Maye said of the Wildcats defense.
It was the kind of impressive defensive effort, however, that Fitzgerald has been pushing for.
''From an energy standpoint, I think the guys are having a lot of fun,'' Fitzgerald said. ''They're in a good place mentally.''
AP college football website: collegefootball.ap.org