Shannon Brooks and a much-needed bend but don't break performance from the Gopher defense helped Minnesota overcome a brutal second half on offense to beat the Illinois Fighting Illini 32-23 and improve to 5-6 heading into a showdown for Paul Bunyan's Axe with the Wisconsin Badgers next Saturday to end(?) the season.
Minnesota clung to a stress-inducing 1-point lead late in the fourth quarter, needing all of one first down to ice the game and escape with a narrow win, until Shannon Brooks did what he has being doing all season long:
I LOVE YOU SHANNON BROOKS! https://t.co/nRIOYi8qbb— Chris H. (@GoAUpher) November 21, 2015
Just remember: This is a true freshman. The Gophers are set at the running back position for the foreseeable future. What a talent Brooks has proven to be this season. His final stat line against the Fighting Illini: 17 rushes for 174 yards with 3 touchdowns. Impressive, to say the least.
The Gophers led the Fighting Illini 21-13 at the break after an impressive touchdown pass on a fade into the corner of the end zone from Mitch Leidner to Rashad Still with 0:05 left on the game clock. Their halftime lead was largely the product of a tremendous first half from Brooks and very effective second quarter adjustments by the defense to stop the Illinois offense in its tracks.
But then this happened:
Illinois outgained the #Gophers 131-1 in the 3rd Qtr.— JoeChristensen (@JoeCStrib) November 21, 2015
Much of the second half was difficult to watch. Fighting Illini quarterback Wes Lunt, who has been something of a punching bag for Illinois fans all season long, looked like a very competent quarterback against a depleted Gopher defense, picking apart the secondary for 279 passing yards and 2 touchdowns. His Gopher counterpart, Mitch Leidner, looked almost nothing like the quarterback we've seen the previous four games. He was missing open receivers with high throws and often making dangerous throws into coverage. As the run game ran out of gas in the second half, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover seemed to develop an infatuation with screen passes to Brooks, though not a single one ever amounted to more than a few yards, if that.
There were a few special teams highlights, in particular a 60-yard kickoff return by the freshman KiAnte Hardin in the third quarter to set up a Ryan Santoso field goal. But Peter Mortell struggled at times, with punts of 18 and 23 yards in the game, the latter coming at a critical point in the fourth quarter that allowed Illinois to cut the deficit 1 point with another field goal. So somewhat of a mixed bag.
When all was said and done, the Gophers were able to ride a monster performance from Brooks to overcome an otherwise miserable second half. Credit the defense also -- in particular, Duke McGhee, who came up big on several plays -- for holding up when the scoring stopped on offense. This was a much-needed team win and, flaws aside, everyone pitched in to stop the bleeding from a four-game losing streak.
Go ahead and breathe a sigh of relief. Enjoy this Saturday and the rest of your weekend. The Gophers got the W! Next up: Axe Week.