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

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Things are starting to click for the Golden Gophers

NCAA Football: Illinois at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Golden Gophers decided to give their fans’ blood pressure a break, at least for one week, with a 40-17 Homecoming victory over the Illinois Fighting Illini. It was their largest margin of victory this season after four games decided by a touchdown or less.

How’d they do it? With their most complete game of the season.

The Elite

The triumphant return of the Gophers’ rushing attack. The Minnesota ground game against Illinois looked a lot like the 2016 version, when Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks last made for one of the most formidable running back tandems in the Big Ten. Well, Homecoming at the University of Minnesota was a homecoming sorts for Smith and Brooks, who combined for 322 rushing yards and two touchdowns against the Fighting Illini.

With the weather conditions having an adverse effect on the passing game, the Gophers leaned on a rushing attack that had been inconsistent at best through the first four games of the season. Smith and Brooks proved more than up to the task. Smith became the first Gopher running back to rush for more than 200 yards in a conference game since Amir Pinnix gained 206 against Michigan State in 2005. His 211 rushing yards against Illinois were also a single-game career-high for Smith. And Brooks finally started to resemble his old self, shaking defenders in the open field or dragging them for extra yards should they happen to get a hand on him.

The Gopher defense. You could not have asked for a better game, especially when you consider that Joe Rossi’s defense only allowed a single field goal. Priority one was bottling up Illinois running back Reggie Corbin and the Gophers did exactly that, limiting the Illini’s most explosive player to 68 rushing yards on 14 carries. His biggest gain of the day was for 21 yards, a far cry from the 60+ yard touchdowns he racked up last year. Minnesota also smothered Illinois’ top wide receiver, Ricky Smalling, and held him to one reception for six yards. The Gophers recorded a season-high three sacks and never let Illinois quarterbacks Brandon Peters and Matt Robinson get into a rhythm in the passing game. It was easily their best performance this season.

Benjamin St.-Juste. I failed to recognize St.-Juste last week, but Pro Football Focus did not, naming him to their Week 5 B1G Team of the Week for his strong showing against Purdue. But he officially has my attention after earning his first start against Illinois and recording five tackles, one tackle for loss, and two pass break-ups. He has started to settle in after transferring in from Michigan, making his case as the Gophers’ best cover corner. And with two years of eligibility left after this season, this could be only the beginning for St.-Juste.

Chris Autman-Bell. The redshirt sophomore wide receiver got things started last week in the passing game for the Gophers, taking a slant route for 70 yards and a touchdown against Purdue. Autman-Bell was something of a spark again a week later. Tanner Morgan was 2-for-10 (albeit, with one touchdown) when the Gophers took over on offense after Illinois missed a field goal in the second quarter. On the first play from scrimmage, Autman-Bell hauled in a sliding 20-yard catch at midfield to start what would be a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. He also torched an Illinois cornerback later in the game for a touchdown:

Brevyn Spann-Ford. The redshirt freshman tight end’s first career reception was also his first career touchdown. The coaching staff has not been shy about touting his potential as a mismatch nightmare on offense, and Saturday provided our first glimpse.

Minnesota is 5-0 for the first time since 2004. Enough said.

The Meh

Tanner Morgan. No one was expecting a repeat performance of last week’s record-setting air attack against Purdue, but I think most were hoping for better than what we saw in the first half, as bad decisions, poor throws, and dropped passes combined for a perfect storm. You’re kidding yourself if you don’t think the weather was a factor, but the quarterback and the receivers certainly shoulder a fair share of the blame. It was ultimately a tale of two halves for Morgan:

1st Half: 4-for-12, 50 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception
2nd Half: 5-for-5, 105 yards, 2 touchdowns

Consider also that he had eight incompletions, and six of those were drops.

“Icing” the kicker. Can we not?

The Ugly

Illinois’ two defensive touchdowns. The Fighting Illini were able to put up 17 points on the scoreboard, but only three of them can be attributed to their actual offense. Both of their touchdowns came on defense. The first was a pick six that Tanner Morgan gift-wrapped and deposited into the hands of Illinois linebacker Dele Harding, who was nowhere an open receiver and promptly returned it to the end zone for an early 7-0. The other touchdown came on a strip sack of Tanner Morgan near the Gophers’ own end zone. Morgan held on to the ball for far too long and was hit by linebacker Jake Hansen as he threw, allowing the Illini to scoop and score. Those are the kinds of mistakes that are going to be costly against better opponents.

Dropped passes in the first half. I’m going to chalk these up to the wet conditions, because I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the passing game looked much better in the second half after the rain let up at halftime. But as P.J. Fleck said in his postgame comments: “Don’t let the circumstance dictate your behavior. Football is football and it’s played outside.”