Greetings Gopher Faithful! Week nine is in the books! It was the Gophers’ third conference victory of the season! And I was there in person! So in addition to the usual format, I’ll be throwing in a lot of first-person account stuff about the game! Let’s get to it...
Rushing TDs, fumble recoveries & more. Yesterday's victory, by the numbers.— Minnesota Football (@GopherFootball) October 30, 2016
#1 Rodney Smith (RS. Sophomore - RB)
I’m beginning to run out of things to say about Smith. So just know he continued to do his thing and scored two more touchdowns. Shannon Brooks was good on a yards per carry basis as well but didn’t see nearly as much action. It doesn’t hurt to have two very good, seemingly very fresh backs heading into the back part of the schedule!
#11 Antoine Winfield Jr. (Freshman - DB)
This guy is going to be a historically good Gopher when all is said and done if he sticks around and stays healthy. I tried to focus in on him specifically on some plays and he has great instincts and abilities, especially considering he is a true freshman. He had 7 tackles, 5 solo tackles, a pass defended, and a key fumble recovery. I don’t have enough superlatives for AWJ. He’s been awesome in maroon and gold this year. Let’s just say that I had sung his praises so much throughout the game that by the third quarter, my dad (who had accompanied me to the game) was calling him, “your boy.” So yes, he is one of my three stars of the game.
#95 and 97 The Brothers Ekpe (Seniors - DL)
Hendrick and Scott caused all sorts of havoc for Illini freshman quarterback Jeff George, Jr and found ways to get the Gopher offense the ball back. While Scott had 2 fumble recoveries, Hendrick tacked on a sack and contributed to the disruption in the backfield that caused the Illini difficulties throughout the proceedings. Jonathan Celestin, Merrick Jackson, and Damarius Travis also deserve kudos for their performances.
The Gophers were able to capitalize on an Illini miscue on their first offensive snap of the game. The botched snap was quickly turned into a Shannon Brooks rushing touchdown and the Gopher were on the board, 7-0. You should have heard the collective groan from the Illini faithful when they fumbled that snap. It almost brought a tear to my eye it was so depressing.
The teams then exchanged three-and-outs and the Illini proceeded to march down the field for a touchdown with a dangerous 7 play, 69 yard drive. Fortunately, after the Gopher went three-and-out, the next Illini mistake was made. A fumble on the punt return that was recovered by Antoine Winfield, Jr. gave the Gophers excellent field position that was immediately capitalized upon by Rodney Smith, who strolled 20 yards into the endzone, making the score 14-7 in favor of Minnesota. Then, Ilini started driving again. This drive was aided by another targeting penalty called against the Gophers (their 6th of the season).
This moment in the game was undoubtedly a scary and slightly awkward one. The play happened not 50 feet from our seats and the collision sounded a bit like an explosion. Initially, I thought it was a relatively clean play that just happened to result in injury because football is a brutal sport that often compares to the gladiatorial games of Roman times. As the crowd was hushed into a silence hoping that Illini WR Malik Turner wasn’t seriously injured, Duke McGhee was thrown out. The Illini fans let him have it with some tasteless booing and other comments not worth repeating. They also seemed to take exception to a few Gophers who were smiling and joking on the sidelines while the medical staff attended to Turner. It was hard to say if this was in bad taste or not because Turner had been on the ground for a long time and it didn’t seem as if the Gopher players were taking joy in the terrible misfortune of an opponent. Let’s just say it wasn’t a pleasant time to be a Gopher fan in a sea of orange and blue.
After an extremely eventful 1st quarter, the 2nd was both ugly and unimpressive. While the Gophers seemed to be putting together an excellent drive, it stalled due to a holding call and was capped by a horrific 10 yard punt by Ryan Santoso. Fortunately, the defense had stiffened up by this point and the teams exchanged punts as the quarter ended with no further scoring. We entered the half leading 14-7 and a long time Illini season ticket holder in front of me commenting, “Neither of these teams are worth a s***,” with the highest degree of indifference in his voice.
The third quarter started with a quick three-and-out by the Illini. The Gophers then capitalized on excellent field position and their biggest passing play of the season to date via Drew Wolitarsky to score a touchdown on the ensuing drive to bring the score to 21-7. The Illini went three-and-out again as the Gopher defense seem to have new resolved after the half. The Gophers once again found themselves with spectacular field position, starting the drive at the Illini 42 yard line. However, they failed to convert a fourth-and-five and turned the ball over on downs. This seemed to reignite Illinois’ resolve and they drove down the field in nine plays to score their second touchdown of the game and bring it back to a one score affair, 21-14. The Gophers then began a drive from their own 30 yard line. The Illini defense received a healthy dose of Rodney Smith and some short pass plays to the likes of Wolitarsky and Nate Wozniak. A late hit by Stanley Green on Rodney Smith brought the Gophers into the redzone and on the doorstep of another touchdown.
The fourth quarter began with a play that turned out to be the straw that broke the Illini’s back. On third-and-two from the Illini five yard line, Mitch Leidner performed a fantastic read and waltzed into the endzone untouched for the fourth Minnesota touchdown of the game. With the score at 28-14 and time running out, the conclusion at this point seemed forgone. After exchanging punts, the Illini found themselves on their own four yard line thanks to a punt return by Antonio Shenault that flipped field position and an excellent coffin corner punt by Santoso and the coverage team. Merrick Jackson finally lived up to his billing as a difference-making defensive tackle, blew up two blockers, and tackled JGJ in the endzone for a safety. The rout was on.
After a three-and-out full of indifference by the Minnesota offense, the defensive line once again got to JGJ, who by this point in time had to be quite shell-shocked, and forced a fumble. Indifference on the offensive side of the ball was evident again as they settled for a field goal after getting the ball at the Illini 12 yard line. The ensuing Illinois drive contained possibly the highlight of the game for the home crowd as Illini kicker Chase McLaughlin nailed a 53 yarder in tricky windy conditions. While it wouldn’t alter the game’s outcome, it was an impressive feat nonetheless. The game would have ended uneventfully from there had it not been for Coach Smith’s head scratching decision to go for it on fourth-and-ten from Illinois’ own 10-yard line but the Gophers were able to turn this strange choice into seven more points as Kobe McCrary found the endzone after consecutive five yard runs. And the score found its final resting place, 40-17.
It was almost depressing as I took in the Homecoming atmosphere in Urbana-Champaign. There was a lot of local excitement (I live in St. Louis) when Illinois announced they were hiring Lovie Smith as head coach of the football program, but that excitement seems to have disappeared just nine weeks into the season. The crowd was lethargic and sparse. The student section was full of huge chunks of empty seats. The long-time season ticket holders who surrounded my father and I, though in attendance, seemed more eager to call out mistakes than enjoy the game.
I was directly across the stadium from the display of conference and national championship years and retired numbers, and the Illinois football program history reminded me a lot of Minnesota’s. There were some glorious years in the far off distance past. The echoes of legends long gone were present throughout the stadium. Heck, they had a Red Grange statue giveaway illustrating their desperation to cling to the glorious Galloping Ghost that once paraded the grounds. Dick Butkus was in attendance and got a rousing ovation when he was introduced on the field during a break, the loudest the crowd got throughout the entire game. I don’t say all this to pile on Illinois or Minnesota. It just made me both sad for the Illini and hopeful for the direction of the Minnesota program.
We will be attending our fifth straight bowl game this year. We have sustained a level of mild consistency and competitiveness the last few years. If we can parlay the new practice facilities being built, the ample amount of quality talent on the roster, and positive progression of our advanced statistical profile as a program into success on the field, I firmly believe the program can head into a direction of relevance in the Big Ten West for years to come.
The offense wasn’t all that pretty but I’ll take mildly ugly offense and a 40-17 score in our favor as oppose to the “Air Raid” and losing 66-59 like Texas Tech did a few weeks ago (just one example of a flashy offense that doesn’t necessarily equate to success in the W-L column). Our running game is effective enough to score when put in favorable positions by our special teams. Leidner threw some ducks, especially at the beginning of the game, but the wind definitely picked up as the game progressed so I don’t know how much good any of our QBs would have been in the conditions. Since the defense seemed to have figured it out, they were going to play it relatively safe and let the Illinois shoot themselves in the foot (which they did in spectacular fashion).
Sideline observations: I was 16 rows back from the Gopher sideline so I had a decent view of a few of the nuances going on throughout the game. Rashad Still seems like a guy who tries to get people pumped up and excited when it seems the enthusiasm level is low. Steven Richardson looks like one big muscle due to his short statue but enormous size. It did kind of seem like Leidner was either hurt or just not feeling it. He seemed in a daze the times I watched him closely. This could be complete speculation on my part but usually your starting quarterback is getting in people’s faces and pumping up people. I thought Mitch was one of those rah-rah guys but I didn’t see much of that on Saturday. The defense seems to be a tight-knit unit. They were always getting pumped up for big plays and reveled in causing turnovers and havoc. Claeys also isn’t really a rah-rah type. I’m not saying this is a knock against him or points for him, I’m just saying I don’t think I heard or saw him yell all that much throughout the game’s duration.
If the defense can stay intact, that is to say, if the secondary’s legal issues are resolved, the linebacking core stays healthy, and Merrick Jackson and the Brothers Ekpe take momentum from the Illinois game and apply it moving forward, I like our chances going through the rest of the regular season on the defensive side of the ball. The final games of the season are against Purdue, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Wisconsin who rank 97th, 37th, 59th, and 57th, respectively, in S&P+ offense. No world beaters in the group. I firmly believe if given reasonable field position, the defense will win us or keep us in all remaining games if they play to the level they have shown more often than not throughout the season. The infusion of young talent like AWJ and Carter Coughlin, who has seen more snaps as the season has progress and has looked good doing so, combine with getting back everyone on the field could spell trouble for the opposition.
People are probably getting sick of this by now, but I continue my practical approach towards the remaining games this season. The win probabilities for the Gophers remaining games according to S&P+ stand at 93%, 35%, 62%, and 21%, in order as they appear on the schedule. The Gophers have a very high probability of going at least 2-2 during the final third of the season. If that happens, they will have a record of 8-4 (5-4).
We started the season at 38th in the preseason S&P+ standings. We are currently 38th in the week 9 S&P+ standings. Through all the frustration and turmoil, this team is still pretty much where the numbers pegged them to be. They haven’t overachieved or underachieved, which depending upon what kind of person you are could be incredibly frustrating, but due to the adversity on and off the field, as well as the changes in the coaching staff that occurred during last year and the off season, it’s not the worst place in the world to be.
For context sake, the 2014 team that was the culmination of Kill’s work at Minnesota finished 36th in S&P+ with an 8-5 record. Sure, they got Floyd and the Chair, so extra points for that, but there isn’t much that separates the edition of the Gophers we are currently watching and the team that a lot of folks would say was the “best” Gopher team of the last ten years or so. Enjoy this season while it lasts. The defense is really good and the schedule has afforded us the ability to inflate the win-loss record a little bit.
The Gophers return home to the Bank to try to make it four (!!!) consecutive Big Ten victories against the Purdue Boilermakers. Let’s hope they are up to the task because Blough can sling the ball around and the secondary may be thin once again...