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

The Gophers’ ground game got it done against the Illini

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 07 Minnesota at Illinois Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Minnesota Golden Gophers are winless no more, having notched their first win of the 2020 season with a 41-14 victory over the Illinois Fighting Illini on Saturday. There was a lot to like about their performance, which was by far their best of the season.

The Elite

Mohamed Ibrahim. Mo is having a monster season. Racking up 224 rushing yards on 30 carries against the Illini, Ibrahim became the first Big Ten back to tally consecutive games with 200 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns within a season since Larry Johnson in 2002. He scored four rushing touchdowns for the second consecutive week, bringing his season total to 10. Even in an abbreviated season, Ibrahim is eight touchdowns shy of tying the program’s single-season record (18) set by Gary Russell in 2005. And he is the only Big Ten player in the last 20 seasons to score 10 rushing touchdowns through three games.

The rest of the Gophers’ “pair and a spare.” Redshirt freshman running back Treyson Potts exited the game with an injury and was seen on the sideline in the second half with a boot on his foot, but the Gophers’ No. 2 back rushed for 49 yards and a touchdown on three carries before being sidelined. Cam Wiley, another redshirt freshman running back, took over as Ibrahim’s primary source of relief, rushing for 57 yards on nine carries.

Special teams. For the first time all season, the Gophers’ specialists were at full strength — and it showed. Kickoff specialist Dragan Kesich saw his first action of the season, notching four touchbacks on seven kickoffs. The Illini were stopped inside their own 20 on all three of the kickoffs they were able to return. Punter Mark Crawford also made his Minnesota debut, but was limited to one punt, albeit one that was downed at the Illinois 11. Kicker Michael Lantz reclaimed his regular kicking duties and missed an extra point, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

Rashod Bateman. The spotlight had eluded the Gophers’ star wide receiver through the first two games of the season, but Bateman wasted no time asserting himself against Illinois. He hauled in 10 receptions for 139 receiving yards and recorded his first touchdown catch of the season, which provided him with another highlight to add to his reel:

Did I mention he has a wicked stiff arm?

Safeties coach Joe Harasymiak. With defensive coordinator Joe Rossi sidelined after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier this week, Harasymiak stepped in and assumed play-calling duties. He was at the helm for the Gophers’ best defensive performance of the season and deserves credit for pushing the right buttons in a difficult situation.

The Gophers’ defensive line. Even with starting defensive tackle Keonte Schad sidelined, Minnesota’s defensive line delivered their best game of the season. Boye Mafe tied for the team lead with six tackles, two sacks, and a forced fumble, bringing his season sack total to four through three games. Defensive tackle De’Angelo Carter, starting in place of Schad, and defensive end Esezi Otomewo each recorded a sack. As a unit, they were more physical in the run game, more consistently set the edge, and generated more pressure than they have all season.

The Meh

Tanner Morgan. Is it just me, or has the Minnesota signal caller struggled to find a rhythm in the passing game through the first three games? Against Illinois, Morgan was 17-of-27 for 231 passing yards, one touchdown, and one interception. Not bad, but he had a fair amount of errant throws, even when the pocket was clean. On the year, Morgan is 45-of-73 (61.6%) for 602 passing yards and three touchdowns. His completion percentage has dropped from 66% a season ago and he is averaging 50 fewer passing yards per game than last year. But you have to factor in the loss of Tyler Johnson, and the fact that Minnesota’s offense has become much more of a rushing attack this season. Morgan has not been bad by any means but I’m hopeful we’ll start to see him get more comfortable, especially as better defenses key in on stopping Ibrahim.

The Gopher defense as a whole. To be clear, this performance was a vast improvement over the first two weeks. But the quality of the opponent was also a factor. Coran Taylor looked the part of a fourth-string quarterback, at one point even attempting a forward pass while several yards past the line of scrimmage. And as a result, the Illini ran a largely one-dimensional offense. But credit to Minnesota for tightening up and taking care of business against an inferior opponent, especially against the run. The linebackers are still a work in progress — Mike Epstein’s 63-yard dash in the second quarter being one example — but there was noticeable improvement in terms of shedding blocks and fitting runs. They still have a long way to go, but this was a step in the right direction.

The Ugly

Turnovers. The ball is the program, and the Gophers did not take care of it against Illinois. Mohamed Ibrahim fumbled in the first quarter, and Tanner Morgan threw an interception in the fourth. On the opposite side of the ball, the defense forced no turnovers. It was the second time this season that Minnesota has lost the turnover battle. That has to change.

Illinois punting on 4th & Goal. This was not “Ugly” for Minnesota, but I don’t know where else to put it. On the opening drive of the second half, the Illini marched down the field, even converting on 4th & 1 to set up 1st & Goal at the Minnesota 10. Taylor was stuffed for no gain on first down, before an Illinois player was called for tripping on second down, drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Backed up to the Minnesota 25 on 2nd & Goal, Taylor fumbled the ball and allowed it to bounce all the way back to the 48-yard line. After an incomplete pass on third down, the Illini punted on 4th & Goal from the Minnesota 48. Self-inflicted wounds were the story of the game for Illinois, including 12 penalties for 120 yards.