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

I’m numb at this point

Illinois v Minnesota Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The Minnesota Golden Gophers (5-4) did what they always seem to do, dropping a game to the Illinois Fighting Illini (4-5) in yet another inexcusable loss this season.

The Ugly

3 plays, 85 yards. Three plays was all it took for Illinois back-up quarterback and former Ball State transfer John Paddock to drive 85 yards for the game-winning touchdown. He entered the game with the Fighting Illini offense backed against a wall, facing 4th & 11 at their own 15-yard line. Paddock proceeded to pick apart the Gophers’ zone coverage, connecting on passes of 22, 17, and 46 yards to lead Illinois to an improbable victory.

4 plays, 0 yards. With 50 seconds remaining in the game, Minnesota needed to at least get within field goal range to give Dragan Kesich a chance at a game-winning kick. Starting at their own 25-yard line, the Gophers failed to gave even a single yard on four plays.

The Minnesota pass defense. It was a disaster from the start for the Gophers’ secondary. All four of the Fighting Illini’s touchdowns came through the air. The first two were to wide open receivers who found the soft spots in Minnesota’s zone coverage. The third came on a swing pass to running Kaden Feagin, who rumbled 54 yards down the sideline after safety Tyler Nubin took a horrible angle to the ball carrier. The fourth and final touchdown pass saw linebacker Cody Lindenberg matched up against Illinois wide receiver Isaiah Williams, who blew past Lindenberg before sprinting between safeties Nubin and Aidan Gousby for the score.

Winning at the line of scrimmage. In the first half, the Gophers’ defensive line was unable to match the physical play of the Illinois offensive line, which bullied its way down the field on a pair of drives, one of which ended in a touchdown and the other a missed field goal attempt. The second half was a different story, as Minnesota racked up four sacks, including a pair courtesy of Jah Joyner. But then it was the offensive line’s turn to look overmatched, with All-American defensive tackle Jer’Zhan Newton entering the game in the second half for Illinois. The Gophers only gained 79 yards of offense after halftime.

Three straight losses to Illinois and Bret Bielema improves to 10-0 in his career against Minnesota. Not since 1993-95 have the Gophers lost three consecutive games to the Fighting Illini. Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck drops to 3-4 against Illinois.

Another wasted opportunity to win the Big Ten West. In 2019, Minnesota only needed to beat either Iowa or Wisconsin to punch their ticket to Indianapolis but instead lost to both, falling short of their first division title. In 2021, it was an inexplicable loss to a sub-.500 Illinois team and a pair of critical defensive breakdowns in a loss to Iowa that cost them a spot in the Big Ten Championship. Last year, a disastrous offensive performance against Purdue and a pair of late turnovers against Iowa relegated them to the role of spoiler in the division. This year, with the West in the worst state it’s ever been, the Gophers once again can’t get out of their own way, blowing fourth quarter leads against Northwestern and Illinois. Fleck flat out can’t get it done.

Sean Tyler. He should never see the field again at this point.

The Meh

Athan Kaliakmanis. It was a tale of two halves for the Gopher quarterback. At halftime, I thought he had played his best half of football this season, going 9-of-11 for 130 passing yards and two touchdowns. But the second half was a near complete reversal, save for a 31-yard touchdown pass to Daniel Jackson in the fourth quarter. Outside of that touchdown pass, Kaliakmanis was 1-for-10 after halftime and was sacked twice by the Fighting Illini.

The Elite

Jah Joyner. Two sacks and a forced fumble. Not a bad day at the office.

Signs of life from Brevyn Spann-Ford. His 31-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter was a thing of beauty. Good to see him looking more like the NFL tight end we know he can be.