The ground game led the way and the Gophers beat Illinois 24-17 to earn their first Big Ten win of the season. Minnesota got back to running the ball and did so to the tune of 292 yards against Illinois. Gaping holes created by the offensive line and a combination of Koby McCrary and Rodney Smith gashed the Illini defense for 153 and 104 yards respectively.
The opening Gopher drive was one of precision and it appeared the Gopher offense would have no trouble putting up points on this defense all afternoon. The first drive went 72 yards in 8 plays and ended with a Demry Croft to Tyler Johnson 8-yard touchdown pass.
But that well executed drive that resulted in a touchdown would prove elusive for the Gophers for much of the game. Their next 5 possessions ended quickly in Ryan Santoso punts and one Rodney Smith fumble inside our own 20.
- Punt on 3-and-out
- Smith fumble
Then came back-to-back drives where the Gophers drove to first and goal, but were unable to find the end zone. These were really they drives that kept this game close, rather than the 3-score win it could have been.
The final drive of the half for the Gophers began after Carter Coughlin forced a fumble. The offense quickly went 32 yards and had first and goal from the 6. From that point they were unable to gain much of anything, settled for an Emmit Carpenter field goal attempt that was missed.
Their next possession, which came after halftime and forcing an Illini 3-and-out, was another beauty...until they got to first and goal from the 1. The offense stalled again and once again settled for a Carpenter FG attempt. This time he hit it, putting the Gophers back in the lead 10-7.
Consecutive drives that put your offense on 1st and goal from the 6 followed by 1st and goal from the 1! And combined you earned 3 points. These were killer for the Gopher offense and continued to breath life into the Illini defense.
Their next two drives didn’t get to inside the 10. They didn’t net points. They were thwarted by two Demry Croft interceptions. It was particularly a difficult day for Croft on the field. It was the dangerous combination of struggling with this execution AND making poor decisions. Overall he was 5/15 throwing for 47 yards, 2 interceptions and 1 touchdown.
Croft really presents an interesting dynamic for the coaching staff. His athleticism forces defenses to do more than focus so much on the Gopher running backs. The ground game really opens up with Croft on the field. But when he struggles passing, like he did today, that aspect of the offense is non-existent and almost a detriment to the offense. 47 total yards through the air, 16 of which came on the first drive, and 2 picks for a full game is pretty ugly. But as I said, he makes for an interesting decision for the coaching staff. The ground game dominated, the passing game lagged but it was a net positive for the offense today.
Defensively the Gophers played quite well. The first Illini touchdown was a short field after Rodney Smith fumbled on the 15. And it was the defense who essentially sealed the game when Jonathan Celestin intercepted a Cam Thomas pass and housed it for a 31-yard pick 6. That touchdown put the Gophers up 24-10 with 4:11 left in the game.
Illinois marched pull within a touchdown on a long, time-consuming drive. But that was as close as they’d get and the Gophers held on for the win.
Both of these were rather young teams, with freshmen playing all over the field. The result was a game with plenty of mistakes and too many turnovers. One could look at this game and see how Minnesota could have won by 3 touchdowns. On the other side, one could see how Illinois was a play or two away from getting this win on the road.
But it was a Gopher win and a confidence booster for them as they head to Iowa City next week for a trophy game.