Gophers Scrape by Lowly Illinois
October 21, 2017

The University of Minnesota football team took a baby step to improvement in overcoming by the score of 24 to 17 an Illinois team that was as green as the field on which they played on Saturday.

The Illini started more true freshmen (14) than any other FBS team in the nation. In total, Illinois played 20 true freshmen against the Gophers. Yet, these raw recruits played Minnesota to a 7-7 standoff at the end of the first half of Minnesota's Homecoming game.

Pre-season observers who thought the Gophers might be able to improve on last year’s 9-4 record were shaken by the performance of a team now struggling to achieve bowl eligibility.

“We have to give Illinois a lot of credit,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said after the game. “They took advantage of a lot of things and threw a lot of things at us that we had not seen before. They were executing well, especially on third down,” he said.

“We said at the beginning of the week that we needed everyone to step up. We needed this to be a complete team effort. We need to have our people step up and make plays. We are not able put together 14-play drives that go on and score touchdowns,” Fleck said.

“We were stagnant on offense,” he said. “Our first drive was great but after that we kept stubbing our toes. We were not perfect, but we played hard.”

“We have to play our style of football. We cannot turn the ball over. We have to continue to build the game plan around things that we do well. We have to keep getting better at the little things, day in and day out. That is what we are going to focus on, keep getting better. That is tough to master right away.”

The team that Fleck inherited from Tracy Claeys is not suited to Fleck’s rapid-fire, no-huddle offense. The 2016 team featured a methodical, grind-them-out offensive unit geared to milking the clock. Fleck is trying to pound a round peg into a square hole.

Against the Illini, Fleck system seemed to work, at first, at least. His new signal-caller Demry Croft led an eight-play, 72-yard drive highlighted by a 26-yard Kobe McCrary run and capped with a Croft touchdown pass to Tyler Johnson.

This was going to be easy. It wasn’t. The Gophers stumbled and bumbled. Rodney Smith fumbled on the Minnesota 15-yard line, and Illinois scored two plays later on a six-yard RaVon Bonner run, and the game became tied.

The rest of the half was earmarked by the ragged play common to a pair of last-place teams flailing away at each other.

For Minnesota, the third quarter began with a Gopher drive that featured seven straight McCrary carries but only yielded an Emmitt Carpenter field goal and a 10-7 lead.

In the third quarter Croft was intercepted by Cameron Watkins, and this led to a Chase McGlaughlin field goal and a tie score. It looked as if Illinois, losers to Rutgers at home the previous week, might have a chance at winning its first Big 10 game.

But Minnesota suddenly came to life on a 12-play. 75-yard touchdown march. Croft did not throw a pass on the drive. In fact, he only completed five passes all day (for 47 yards).

Jonathan Celestin cemented the victory with an interception of a Cam Thomas pass for a 31-yard touchdown run.

Minnesota now faces five daunting teams in an effort to achieve the six wins crucial for bowl eligibility.

The crowd size was announced at 45,243 although 10,000 or so season-ticket holders were counted despite their absence and apparent inability to find friends and family members willing to attend in their place.

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