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Minnesota Football vs. Illinois: The Elite, The Meh & The Ugly

The Gophers’ miserable October continues

Minnesota v Illinois Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-2) have lost two straight now after traveling to Champaign to get pushed around by the No. 24-ranked Illinois Fighting Illini (6-1) in a 26-14 loss.

The Elite

Mohamed Ibrahim. Against the third-ranked run defense in the country, Ibrahim rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown, accounting for 70% of the Gophers’ total yards on offense and extending his streak of consecutive games with 100+ rushing yards to 14. This offense does not deserve Ibrahim, and Ibrahim deserves better than this offense.

Quentin Redding’s 92-yard kickoff return. That was neat.

The Meh

Punting. Not sure what else to put here, but I guess Mark Crawford was fine. Four punts on the day, averaging 40.3 yards per punt, with one downed inside the 20.

The Ugly

The Gophers’ wide receivers. The most disturbing disparity between these two teams on Saturday was the talent at the wide receiver position. Illinois seemed to have a full arsenal of pass catchers to take advantage of the soft spots in coverage. Isiah Williams led the way with nine receptions for 62 receiving yards, combining with Pat Bryant and Brian Hightower to rack up 175 receiving yards on 19 receptions. No one stepped up at wide receiver for Minnesota, and I think wide receivers coach Matt Simon — and, by extension, head coach P.J. Fleck — needs to answer for that. Whatever credit he accrued for sending Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman to the NFL has dried up. The fact that the Gophers are so woefully outgunned at wide receiver in Year 6 of Simon’s tenure is an indictment of his recruiting and development.

Everyone else involved in the Gophers’ passing game. Six pass completions, 38 passing yards, and three interceptions. It doesn’t get much worse than that. The total system failure of the Minnesota passing game can actually be summed up in one play. Midway through the first quarter, Tanner Morgan drops back to pass on first down. Both offensive tackles get beat and Morgan has two pass rushers in his face within seconds after the snap. He throws deep to Mike Brown-Stephens, who has a step on the cornerback in coverage. Morgan is clobbered as he throws and the ball has perhaps a bit too much air under it, allowing the safety to close the gap and make a play on the ball. Rather than high point the ball, Brown-Stephens waits for it to drop into his arms and the safety is able to snatch it away from him for an interception.

Failure at all three levels. Pass protection was a disaster, as the Illini recorded two sacks and five quarterback hurries. Tanner Morgan never looked comfortable. I’ve already mentioned the issues with the wide receivers. When Morgan did have time in the pocket, they were being smothered in coverage by the Illini secondary. Then Morgan was lost to an upper body injury and Athan Kaliakmanis was thrown into the fire. The last thing you want to have to do is insert a redshirt freshman at quarterback when you’re trailing late and need to pass the ball, because the defense can pin their ears back and try to rattle him, which is exactly what happened.

One of the worst defensive performances of Joe Rossi’s tenure. The most demoralizing aspect of the game was that the Gophers’ defense got outcoached, outschemed, and outplayed. Minnesota couldn’t get off the field on defense, as the Illini dominated the time of possession and were even 4-for-4 on fourth down. Illinois had nine offensive possessions and six of them were scoring drives. The Gophers’ pass rush didn’t register a single sack or even a quarterback hurry, allowing quarterback Tommy DeVito to torch the Minnesota secondary for 252 passing yards and complete 78% of his passes. The defensive line got beat up front and the run fits were a complete mess, paving the way for Chase Brown to rack up 180 rushing yards on 41 carries.

R.I.P. to the Gophers’ chances of winning the Big Ten West. In a season when Wisconsin has fired their head coach and Iowa has the worst offense in college football, Minnesota still finds itself looking up in the Big Ten West standings. Back-to-back losses to Purdue and Illinois, who are now the prohibitive favorites for the division crown, have effectively sunk the Gophers’ chances of winning the West. The worst part is that if the Illini win the West, Bret Bielema will have done in two years what Fleck has failed to do in six. That’s a tough pill to swallow.

Bret Bielema improves to 9-0 in his career against Minnesota, and P.J. Fleck drops to 3-3 against Illinois. Pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?