MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota's seniors have encountered plenty of speed bumps during their careers, from the health trouble of former coach Jerry Kill that forced his retirement last season to several late-game lapses that cost the Gophers victories against ranked opponents.
These soon-to-depart players won't leave the program without success, though, with 29 victories over the last four years. That's the most by a senior class since 2006, a group that finished with 30 wins. The 2005 class left with 32 victories, a total that could still be matched this season.
"When they got here, everything wasn't all rosy and going in the right direction, and the culture had to change, and they were a big part of that," coach Tracy Claeys said, adding: "We need to try to finish out the season and reward them."
The Gophers (7-3, 4-3 Big Ten) host Northwestern (5-5, 4-3) on Saturday, a year after losing 27-0 on the road to the Wildcats. With one more win, the Gophers will reach eight victories for a third time in four seasons.
"If I could do it all over again, I would come back to Minnesota," said safety Damarius Travis, one of 13 seniors and 10 players in their fifth year in the program who will take the field at TCF Bank Stadium for the final time.
"Sometimes you lose sight of it with some of the things that go on and having a tough loss last weekend," quarterback Mitch Leidner said, looking back at the 24-17 defeat at Nebraska, "but at the same time when you go back and reflect it's pretty remarkable what we've been able to do."
The Gophers also lost 29-26 at now-No. 9 Penn State in overtime and 14-7 at home to Iowa.
"They're probably one or two plays away, the games they ended up on the short end, of being undefeated," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
The Wildcats need to win one of their last two games against the Gophers and Illinois to become bowl eligible for a second straight season. They've steadied themselves after losing their first two games this year to Western Michigan and Illinois State.
"I'm sure the noise was really negative. The only guys who were going to get it fixed were going to be the guys in the locker room," Fitzgerald said.
Here are some key angles to the game:
Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson is coming off a career-best performance against Purdue last week, when he passed for 352 yards and three touchdowns. That was the sophomore's second 300-yard game this season and his fifth with three touchdown passes.
Thorson ranks third in the conference in yards passing (2,571), yards per game (257.1) and touchdowns (19), the latter of which has him tied for third on Northwestern's single-season list. He needs three more to set a program record.
CARR, THE DRIVER
Thorson's top target has been Austin Carr, who was named this week one of 10 finalists for the Biletnikoff Award given to the nation's best wide receiver. Carr has a touchdown catch in eight of 10 games and leads the Big Ten in every major statistical category for receiving.
The Gophers are third-to-last in the league with an average of 231 yards passing allowed per game, and they're tied with Rutgers with a conference-most 20 touchdown passes surrendered.
Justin Jackson became Northwestern's first 1,000-yard rusher in three seasons last week against Purdue, and he's on pace to become the school's all-time leader in rushing and all-purpose yards. The Big Ten's active career rushing leader with 3,642 yards, Jackson needs 151 yards to tie Darnell Autry for third on Northwestern's all-time list. With 4,159 all-purpose yards, he is 112 yards shy of Venric Mark for fourth place.
"They've had their years when they really relied on the pass and scrambling around a lot more, and this year, without a doubt, it all starts with the running back," Claeys said. "We've got to take him away."
SAFE AT HOME
With a win, the Gophers would match their best season record at TCF Bank Stadium, where they went 6-1 in 2014. Minnesota is 31-24 at home since the stadium opened on campus in 2009, including 23-11 over the last five years.
THIRTY FOR THIRTY
Leidner is the only player in Gophers history to reach 30 career touchdowns in both passing and rushing. He's fifth on the all-time program list with 31 rushing scores and tied for sixth with 33 passing touchdowns.