Gophers Finish Season with 27-7 Win over Illinois
November 26, 2011

With a dominating 27-7 win over Illinois, the Minnesota Gophers finished their 2011 season with a non-conference win and Big Ten victories over Iowa and Illinois— the same as they did in 2010. However, going out on a high note brings more optimism this year, the first under coach Jerry Kill, then it did for the lost season of 2010 when Tim Brewster was fired mid-year and interim head coach Jeff Horton guided the Gophers to wins in two of their final three games.

“I said to them, ‘Play your best game,’ and I really think they did,” said Kill after the game.

In the opposing interview room, Illinois coach Ron Zook had the look of a man on his way to the gallows. “I told the team last Monday, ‘You guys have to decide how you want to be remembered.’”

At this point, the memory won’t be a good one. With six wins, all in its first six games, Illinois will probably have a bowl game to go out on, but Zook’s job status, unclear coming into the Minnesota game, has gotten hazier. After the 6-0 start, the Illini have lost six in a row, and they couldn’t have looked worse than they did in the first half against Minnesota.

Sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse came into the game with 1,956 yards passing, and he didn’t make it to 2,000. He completed four of five passes but only for 15 yards before being relieved by freshman quarterback Reilly O’Toole in the second quarter.

The teams exchanged seven punts through the first quarter and into the second, but a big play by Minnesota defensive end Ra’Shede Hageman led to the Gophers’ first score. On a third-down play, Hageman sacked Scheelhaase, who lost the ball. Michael Amaefula of Minnesota recovered on the Illinois 16. On the next play, quarterback MarQueis Gray ran through the right side, breaking a tackle by strong safety Steve Hull at the 5, and carried it into the end zone.

The Minnesota defense held again, forcing another punt by Illinois (which at this point had no first downs and minus-one yard in total offense), and Gray led a 54-yard drive to paydirt, finishing the drive with a low pass to a wide-open John Rabe, who went to his knees and slid to make the catch in the end zone.

Jordan Wettstein, with the wind at his back, kicked a 43-yard field goal for a 17-0 lead with 1:17 left in the half. Illinois finally got a first down but still gave up the ball quickly, and Minnesota got it back on its 40 with 24 seconds left.

Gray carried on a quarterback draw for 9 yards, putting him over 100 yard rushing for the game, and then ran for another 5 before hitting Da’Jon McKnight for a 12-yard gain. With 6 seconds left, Wettstein came out again and this time nailed a 51-yarder to send the Gophers into the locker room with a 20-0 lead.

At the half, Minnesota had 217 yards, 85 in the air and 132 on the ground, with 111 of those rushing yards by Gray. The Illini had 23 plays for only 18 yards.

The Gophers scored on their first drive of the third quarter, capping it on another nifty run by Gray, who sidestepped defensive end Michael Buchanan and ran in for a 14-yard touchdown. “Their quarterback is something to be reckoned with,” said Zook, “and we didn’t do it.”

Illinois finally mounted a scoring drive, kept alive by a successful fake punt and helped by a late-hit penalty on Minnesota linebacker Gary Tinsley, Minnesota’s first penalty of the game. Two plays later Troy Pollard carried for an 11-yard touchdown, but under four-and-a-half minutes remained in the third quarter, not enough time for a team as moribund on offense as the Illini to make a comeback.

Gray finished the game with 174 yards on 27 carries, and he completed 7 of 14 for 85 yards. Illinois managed only 160 total yards from scrimmage, split almost evenly between rushing and passing. “Teams that win championships have to be good on defense,” said Kill. “We’ll recruit hard and keep moving that part of the team forward.”

On the other side, Zook pondered how his team’s season has plummeted. “I wish I had the answer, but it’s not just one thing, it’s not just one position, it’s not just one person. It’s an accumulation of things, and it all starts with me.”

Gopher Holes: The Gophers had only two penalties in the game. Besides the personal foul by Tinsley, long-snapper Jake Filkins got too close to punt-returner Terry Hawthorne, who called for a fair catch and then dropped the ball with Filkins in his face. The penalty on Filkins was another 15-yarder, giving Minnesota 2 penalties for 30 yards. The punt by Orseske was 37 yards, 1 yard short of his longest punt of the day; however, Orseske also had a punt for only 9 yards, and he had only a 27.1 yard average on his 7 punts in the game.

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