Gophers Continue Bowl Chase
November 21, 2015

Freshman running back Shannon Brooks raced 75 yards for a touchdown that, when coupled with a successful two-point conversion, gave the Minnesota Gophers a nine-point lead and the eventual victory over Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium.

And so the Gophers need a win over Wisconsin at home to notch the team’s sixth victory and a bowl bid.

It should have never come to this.

A season that began with a vibrant coach and bubbly optimism will finish with neither as Jerry Kill stepped down mid-season, and the team regressed under Tracy Claeys. To be fair, the Gophers were sputtering with Kill at the helm, turning in dreary performances against inferior opposition (Kent State, Ohio, and Colorado State) and a complete collapse at Northwestern. Claeys took over, bungled the Michigan game, then helmed losses to Ohio State and Iowa. From October 17 through November 20, the Gophers went 0-4 and now are decided underdogs against the Badgers. Oh, and the Gophers haven’t beaten Wisconsin since November of 2003 when Glen Mason was head coach.

What would have made the Wisconsin game inconsequential would have been a loss to Illinois, a team also seeking the magical sixth victory and bowl eligibility. Thanks to the artistry of quarterback Wes Lunt, the Illini almost pulled it off. Lunt hit Malik Turner with a 13-yard touchdown pass with 3:41 left in the first period, and Illinois led 7-0.

However, Minnesota quickly retaliated with a five-yard touchdown run by Brooks to end the quarter. Illinois regained the lead on a 23-yard Taylor Zalewski field goal to put the visitors up by 10 to 7, and it became apparent that the Illini wanted the win as much (or more) as their opponents. But Shannon Brooks was having the game of his life. He busted through Illini defenders for a 38-yard touchdown romp, and the Gophers took the lead to stay.

Another Zalewski field goal made it 14-13, but a Minnesota touchdown as the half ended demonstrated the clock management that was missing in the Michigan loss. With only 24 seconds left in the half, and Minnesota on the Illini four-yard line, quarterback Mitch Leidner ran for three yards to the Illinois one and a first down. Nine seconds ran off the clock, and Leidner spiked the ball. The quarterback then failed to score on a sneak, and time out was called by the Gophers. With only five seconds remaining Leidner found freshman Rashad Still open in the end zone and tossed him a touchdown pass.

The third period was all Illinois as the Gophers could only manage a single yard of net total offense and were outgained 131-1. The only points Illinois scored in the period were the result of a six-yard touchdown pass from Lunt to Andrew Davis, but, on the ensuing kickoff Minnesota’s KiAnte Hardin pulled off a 60-yard return to the Illini 34-yard line. Once again, the Gopher offense sputtered, and Ryan Santoso kicked a 46-yard field goal. Minnesota led 24-20.

Zalewski’s third field goal in the fourth quarter closed the margin to 24-23, and Gopher fans among the announced crowd of 47,976 were on edge all the way up to Brooks’ third touchdown. A successful Leidner two-point conversion run made it 32-23 and proved to be the final margin of victory.

“It was a tale of two different halves offensively,” said Claeys after the game. “But our defense came up with the plays they needed to.”

He pointed to the upcoming Wisconsin game. “There is not a better way to end the season. It will be a heck of a challenge. I want that axe.”

Paul Bunyon’s axe has been sitting in the bottom of a Badger trophy case so long that it might have been destroyed by termites years ago.

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