The Minnesota Golden Gophers were able to avenge their 2014 loss in Champaign with a 40-17 road victory over the Illinois Fighting Illini on Saturday. The Gophers have won three straight and are now bowl-eligible with a record of 6-2 on the season. With a conference record of 3-2, they’re also now tied for 2nd in the Big Ten West with Wisconsin, Iowa, and Northwestern. If they win out and Iowa loses another Big Ten game, the Gophers are headed to the Big Ten Championship. Very unlikely based on what we’ve seen from this team so far, but the fact that it’s a possibility is kind of crazy, right? Anyway, back to Illinois. Let’s break the game down into arbitrary categories — used simply for the sake of simplicity, and out of affection for Sergio Leone — that people will undoubtedly fixate on, rather than focusing on the supporting text that provides more detailed and thoughtful evaluation.
Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. You know the drill by now. Smith and Brooks combined for 32 carries, 159 rushing yards, and three touchdowns. With 801 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns through eight games, Smith is in line for potential all-conference honors at the end of the season, if he keeps it up. Meanwhile, Brooks found the end zone again for the sixth straight game this season. In summary, the Gophers have good running backs. In other news, the sky is blue and water is wet.
Drew Wolitarsky. Just a day after I criticized the Gophers’ receiving corps for their inability to gain yards after the catch (among other things), Wolitarsky answered the call and twice outran Illinois defenders in the secondary to pick up big chunks of yards. Three receptions and 64 receiving yards might not seem that impressive on paper, but Wolitarsky showed a burst that we haven’t seen much so far this season. His 35-yard catch-and-run in the third quarter is the Gophers’ longest pass play of the season and led to a Rodney Smith touchdown run two plays later. The passing game wasn’t spectacular, but it was refreshing to see a Gopher wide receiver make a couple plays.
Scoring off turnovers. Illinois essentially handed the game to Minnesota in the first half, with quarterback Jeff George, Jr. fumbling the first snap of the game and allowing Gopher defensive tackle Scott Ekpe to recover at the Illinois 9. Brooks would punch it in for a score one play later. Then Illinois punt returner Darius Mosely fumbled a punt at the Illinois 20 and allowed everyone’s favorite freshman defensive back Antoine Winfield, Jr. to recover. Smith would punch it in for a score one play later. Defensive end Hank Ekpe sacked George, Jr. in the fourth quarter, forcing a fumble that his brother then recovered at the Illinois 12. Minnesota would settle for a field goal on the next drive, but the game was well in hand at that point.
The Ekpe brothers. As I mentioned, Gopher defensive linemen Scott and Hank Ekpe were both instrumental in forcing the Fighting Illini to make costly mistakes that put the Gopher offense in a position to capitalize. The two brothers combined for four tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, and two fumble recoveries.
Dialing up the pressure in the second half. Illinois’ freshman quarterback was much too comfortable in the first half, going 8-for-10 with 63 passing yards. In the second half, he went 8-for-24 with 93 passing yards and one touchdown, in large part because defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel decided to start dialing up blitzes from all over the field. The Gophers sacked him twice — once in the end zone for a safety — and were in his face most of the second half, forcing him to throw the ball quickly, often for incompletions. Minnesota still can’t seem to apply much pressure with a four-man rush, but it was fun to watch the Gopher defense terrorize George, Jr.
The offensive line. I’m beginning to sound like a broken record. As often as Smith and Brooks have been good, the offensive line has been bad. Against Illinois, the pass protection was particularly awful. I realize that Jonah Pirsig is out and that the Fighting Illini have NFL-caliber talent on their defensive line — seriously — but Mitch Leidner was running for his life most of the game. He was hammered by Illinois defenders on back-to-back drives in the first half after the Fighting Illini were able to penetrate the backfield almost immediately. Those sacks effectively killed both drives. The Illinois defense also tallied eight tackles for loss in the game.
Ryan Santoso. With the wind at his back, Santoso punted the ball 10 yards late in the first half. I’ll repeat, with the wind at his back. Prior to that, he had a 25-yard punt out of bounds that set up Illinois’ first scoring drive of the game. He recovered nicely before halftime, allowing the return team to pin the Fighting Illinois at their own 3 after a poor decision by their returner (who had a really bad day, in general). Santoso also downed one at the Illinois 4 early in the fourth quarter. So it was a mix of good and bad, but the inconsistency is mind boggling at this point.
Targeting. Can we not?
Nothing — except for penalties, maybe. The Gophers were called for six penalties in the game, twice as many as their opponent. This has been a recurring issue under Tracy Claeys and is a far cry from the disciplined play we saw under Jerry Kill. Fortunately, Minnesota was able to overcome it, but these unforced errors will likely come back to bite them against better competition in the coming weeks.