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Minnesota Football-Minnesota Beats Illinois 40-17

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota beat Illinois 40-17 today in Champaign. That is the most points ever scored in Champaign by the Gophers. With the win, Minnesota becomes bowl eligible for the fifth straight year. The Gophers capitalized on three Illinois turnovers to get out to a big lead that they never relinquished. Rodney Smith led Minnesota’s offense with his 5th 100 yard rushing game of the season.

Let’s start with Illinois’s turnover problem. The Illini started the game with a botched snap, had a muffed punt, and later in the fourth Jeff George Jr. fumbled again while being sacked. Illinois also had a safety in the second half. As a result, Minnesota had excellent field position which they converted into seventeen points.

Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith both scored touchdowns after turnovers in the first half. Smith continued to play well, with his 5th 100 yard rushing game of the season. He picked up another touchdown in the second half and also added nineteen receiving yards.

Brooks was his usual bulldozer self, flattening tacklers to eke out extra yards. He had 59 yards on 12 carries with the aforementioned touchdown. The Gophers are lucky to have two excellent running backs, particularly with the line’s struggles this season.

Mitch Leidner had a quiet game. The senior quarterback was 10 for 19 for 119 with no touchdowns or interceptions. He added a rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter. Leidner had some difficulty planting and finishing throws today and continued to look a little slow on read option plays. Perhaps his foot injury has returned, or he is still feeling the after effects of a concussion. This is not to excuse several bad throws where Leidner threw behind his receiver or right into coverage. Those throws were poor, and at least one of them would have been intercepted if the defensive back had made an earlier read.

On defense, Minnesota did a reasonable job getting pressure on passing downs. Illinois’s touchdown drives were clinics in missed tackling and bad assignment football, but the defense settled down in the second half. Late in the game, Minnesota’s pressure was overwhelming, leading to one safety.

Steven Richardson returned from a concussion protocol and played well, consistently getting into the back field to break up plays. Besides Richardson, Jonathan Celestin had another excellent game at the linebacker and Gaelin Elmore and Scott Ekpe played their best games of the season. Damarius Travis deserves as many superlatives as possible like usual.

Minnesota’s special teams remain inconsistent. Ryan Santoso had a ten yard punt with the wind, but also put a punt inside the five. Antonio Shenault muffed a punt that the Gophers managed to recover, and then later had a great running catch and return. Emmit Carpenter made all of his extra points and a 28 yard field goal.

At 6-2 heading into a game against Purdue, Minnesota is bowl eligible and still with a chance to win the West. Tracy Claeys said the goal for the season was to be competitive in November. He got his wish.