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Minnesota Football vs Illinois: The Elite, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Gophers needed a hard-fought defensive effort to earn P.J. Fleck his first Big Ten win at Minnesota

Illinois v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The Minnesota Golden Gophers edged the Illinois Fighting Illini 24-17 on Homecoming to earn head coach P.J. Fleck his first conference win at Minnesota. It was an ugly game, to say the least, but a much-needed victory for the Gophers. One thing is clear: Minnesota will have to clean some things up moving forward to prevent Saturday’s win from being their lone conference victory at the end of the season.

The Elite

Kobe McCrary. It’s a shame that he has been relegated to back-up duties behind Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, because he would be the starter at a number of programs across the country. The Gophers are fortunate to have him, especially with banged up Smith and Brooks have been this season. With Brooks out with an ankle injury and Smith leaving the game due to a possible concussion, McCrary carried the Gopher offense to victory with 24 carries, 153 rushing yards, and one touchdown.

Jonathan Celestin’s pick six. We’ve mentioned this before, but the Gopher linebacker has dedicated his senior season to his late father, who died in a car accident in the spring. It was certainly an emotional night for Celestin as his fourth quarter interception return for a touchdown not only sealed the victory for Minnesota, but represented the first interception and touchdown of his college career. He and Fleck even shared a moment on the sidelines afterwards, as both pointed to the heavens before embracing.

Thomas Barber. As long as Thomas Barber keeps doing Thomas Barber things, I’m going to keep talking about Thomas Barber. The sophomore linebacker has led the Gopher defense in tackles in all but one of their conference games this season. Barber had 11 tackles, including two tackles for loss, against Illinois on Saturday. He is currently tied for second in the Big Ten conference with 63 tackles on the year.

Kunle Ayinde. The senior defensive back has had his share of struggles over the years, but he deserves a tip of the cap for how he has stepped up this season, filling in at both safety and cornerback as injuries have depleted the Gopher secondary. Ayinde had a strong performance against the Fighting Illini, finishing the game with nine tackles and one tackle for loss.

The Bad

Turnovers on offense. I don’t know how much more Fleck can emphasize “The ball is the program” before the offense starts to take care of the football. The Fighting Illini were able to score 10 points off three turnovers, including a Rodney Smith fumble at the Minnesota 15-yard line that set up an easy scoring drive to tie the game early. The Gophers have had at least two turnovers in each of their Big Ten games this season. The opportunistic Gopher defense has been able to even things up for the most part, but the offense can’t keep turning the ball over.

Red zone offense. Carter Coughlin forced a fumble in Illinois territory in the second quarter and Steven Richardson recovered, but the Gophers had to settle for a failed Emmit Carpenter field goal attempt from the 12-yard line. Then on their first drive of the second half, Minnesota drove to the Illinois 2-yard line after three plays from the goal line went nowhere. The ineptitude in the red zone baffles me. This team can’t afford to leave points on the field.

The wide receiver corps. It was a bad game for everyone involved in the passing game — we’ll get to Demry Croft in a minute — but the Gophers’ wide receivers did themselves no favors. The Illinois secondary was ripe for the picking, but no one could seem to find separation for most of the game. Just one wide receiver recorded a reception on Saturday. We’ve known for a while that the receiving corps is Tyler Johnson and everybody — or anybody — else, but it was more obvious than usual against Illinois.

The Ugly

Demry Croft. Well, against Michigan State, we saw his ceiling. Unfortunately, we didn’t have to wait long to see his floor. In his first career start at Minnesota, Croft opened the game with an eight-play scoring drive that culminated in an eight-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Johnson. But after that, Croft had what I imagine was one of the worst games of his life. His final line against Illinois: 5-for-15, 47 passing yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. That’s terrible no matter how you slice it. On the Gophers’ final two scoring drives of the game, he attempted one pass, which illustrates how much the ground game was working but also how much offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca trusted him to keep the offense in rhythm through the air. Hopefully, Croft will be able to bounce back and use this as a learning experience.