The Gophers had an 8-point lead at half that slowly dwindled as Illinois dominated for much of the second half coming to within a point. But when it mattered most the defense had a huge sack, forced a punt and then Shannon Brooks housed a 75-yard touchdown run setting up the game-clinching 2-point conversion. The win ends the team's three-game losing streak and sets up next week's matchup with Wisconsin to be a battle for the Axe as well as gaining bowl eligiblity.
Today was the true freshman showcase but it ultimately featured Shannon Brooks who continued to emerge in the Gopher backfield and had himself a career game to day with 175 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Rodney Smith got two carries on the second series of the game and then did not return, opening the door for Brooks. On the third series Mitch Leidner opened things up with a 33-yard keeper on the zone-read, then it was Brooks who ran for 15, 11 and 5 with the last one tying the game up at 7 apiece. On the next possession Brooks took a 3rd and 2 handoff that he turned into a 38-yard touchdown run.
And then on the team's final possession before the half it was the passing game that did the most damage and resulted in a 1-yard pass from Leidner to Still in the back corner of the endzone to open up a 13-21 lead at the break.
The Gopher offense had an ugly second half today and scored on the backs of KiAnte Hardin's long kickoff return and Brooks' 75-yard run. In fact Brooks accounted for 98 yards in the second half while the rest of the Gopher offense was responsible for 12. The struggles were particularly evident on third downs and in the passing game on this frigid November Saturday. The offense was 1/5 on third down and Leidner threw for 11 yards in the second half. It wasn't pretty but it was enough.
The Illinois offense, on the other hand, was rolling up quite few yards in the second half a the Gopher defense was often on their heels and missing tackles. But in the fourth quarter they held their ground. With under 10 minutes to play Illinois drove to the Gopher's 25 and had first down but the defense forced a field goal to maintain the lead. Then on their next possession Illinois trailed by just one point and had just under 5 minutes to get themselves into FG range. Wes Lunt completed four consecutive passes and had his offense moving with a first down on their own 41. But an incomplete pass followed by a huge Julian Huff sack put the Illini in a 3rd and 21 situation. The defense forced a punt and then it was the Brooks run to seal it.
Up 7 following the Brooks' touchdown, head coach Tracy Claeys made a bold move to go for two rather than put his team up 8 with an extra point. Leider ran the ball in up put Minnesota up 9 with 1:25 to play and sealed the win. A curious move but one that didn't seem to matter in the end. We don't know a lot about what we can expect from Tracy Claeys but I think one thing is clear, he will be aggressive is situations such as this.
As I mentioned today was really a showcase of several true freshmen who had big games today. Brooks has been talked about quite a bit already. But the lanky Still caught the team's third touchdown of the game on a short fade in the end zone. KiAnte Hardin was on the field a lot and had a huge impact with a pass break up in the end zone, a 60-yard kick off return and five tackles. Tyler Moore was playing along the offensive line. Julian Huff had 3 tackles, split a sack with Gaelin Elmore and recorded the critically important fourth quarter sack which Claeys talked about in the press conference.
"No question, when we got Julian in there we figured they would do the drop back passing game. He did a nice move on the tackle and got around him and then the quarterback, rather than throw it away, tried to escape and JuJu is a pretty good athlete. He's strong. So when he turned out there he just added more yardage and the sack was enough to they couldn't recover off of it. Big momentum changer there, but it's good that that came from the defense because we haven't had many of those plays this month."
The win puts the Gophers just one win shy of becoming bowl eligible. Just getting to 6 wins may not be what many of us had hoped coming into the season but getting eligible for another bowl is better than not and gives the team more time to practice and develop many of the freshmen mentioned above and others who will be key contributors down the road. And more importantly the Gophers have a chance to earn this bowl game by beating Wisconsin, getting back Paul Bunyan's Axe!
"Here's the thing with the Axe: Even with Coach Kill we put an awful lot of work into it and that's the one trophy we didn't get. We are going to put as much into this as we can because what a great way to reward him if we could get that Axe."
Well said Coach...Get The Axe!