EVANSTON, Ill. -- Sam Simmons' broken finger didn't affect his ability to break open a game.
Simmons returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown Saturday and caught seven passes, including one for a 29-yard TD, as Northwestern beat Minnesota 23-17.
"I know the team counts on me. And if the ball comes my way, I try to make the plays," Simmons said.
"It feels good to be back in rhythm. I had been sluggish and out of synch the last couple of weeks."
Simmons broke his right ring finger three weeks ago but kept on playing in games against Michigan State and Ohio State. He's finally feeling comfortable.
After an early offensive surge on a rainy day at Ryan Field, the Wildcats (4-1, 2-1 Big Ten) sputtered, but Simmons gave them a spark just before the half with his return.
"Sam is a difference maker," Northwestern coach Randy Walker said. "I felt that he had a chance to get a punt return going. He's a special player back there."
Simmons gathered the game-swinging punt at the 29, threaded his way through the Gophers by sidestepping four tacklers and then cut inside to complete the electrifying return with 2:46 left in the second quarter. That put the Wildcats ahead 20-10.
"It was blocked well and it was a short kick that just came to me fast. And I just tried to cut it up the field as soon as I could," Simmons said.
"The punt return was huge," Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. "At that point, our defense had settled in."
Minnesota (1-4, 0-3) moved the ball throughout the game with 257 rushing yards and got close when Travis Cole hit Ron Johnson on a fourth-down, 35-yard TD pass with 32 seconds left.
"We moved the ball well down the field, we just didn't score enough," Mason said.
Northwestern's Kunle Patrick then recovered an onside kick and the Wildcats ran out the clock.
Northwestern's quick-working, no-huddle offense scored on its first two possessions, driving 95 yards in just under four minutes and 66 yards in just under 20 seconds.
Zak Kustok was 8-of-9 on the first drive with Damien Anderson going 4 yards for the TD. Simmons hauled in his 29-yarder to put the Wildcats ahead 13-3 in the first quarter.
Minnesota, behind quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq -- starting for the first time since the opener -- and running back Tellis Redmon moved the ball early against the Wildcats.
A 17-yard run by Marion Barber set up Abdul-Khaliq's 1-yard run that made it 13-10 in the second quarter. The Gophers also moved to the Northwestern 21 on their first possession before the Wildcats' Marvin Brown intercepted at the 5. On their next drive, the Gophers reached the NU 11 but had to settle for Dan Nystrom's 25-yard field goal.
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