Gray guides Minnesota past skidding Illinois 27-7
MarQueis Gray rushed for 167 yards and two touchdowns and threw
for another score, guiding Minnesota past backsliding Illinois 27-7
on Saturday in the season finale and sending the Fighting Illini to
their sixth straight defeat.
Gray took off 27 times to break the single-season rushing record
for a Golden Gophers quarterback, giving him 966 yards. Billy
Cockerham had 831 yards rushing in 1999.
Troy Pollard’s 11-yard touchdown run in the third quarter was
the only highlight for the Illini (6-6, 2-6 Big Ten), who wasted
their best start in 60 years and put coach Ron Zook’s job in
obvious danger. Nathan Scheelhaase, who was 4 for 6 for 15 yards in
a time share with Reilly O’Toole, lost a costly fumble on one of
his five sacks.
Illinois held an opponent under 100 yards passing for the fifth
time this season – Gray went 7 for 14 for 85 yards – but couldn’t
stop him from scrambling and converting critical first downs.
Jordan Wettstein kicked field goals of 43 and 51 yards for the
Gophers (3-9, 2-6), who have won nine of their last 12 games
against the Illini.
They held Illinois to 18 yards on 23 plays in the first half and
a season-low 160 yards on 59 plays for the game, by far the best
performance of the year for a defense playing with a lot more speed
and confidence than during that 58-0 loss at Michigan on Oct.
This was the first time Minnesota led from start to finish since
winning 17-6 at Purdue on Oct. 25, 2008. The Gophers posted their
largest margin of victory since beating Florida Atlantic 37-3 on
Sept. 20, 2008, and their biggest in a conference game since a
63-26 win over Indiana on Nov. 4, 2006.
They appeared to want this one more than the Illini, who looked
defeated and lethargic except for a first-down run by freshman
O’Toole, who jumped up and pumped his fist to fire up the sideline
in the third quarter. That drive was extended by a successful
fake-punt run by Jay Prosch and capped by Pollard’s score, but the
Gophers were unfazed.
They danced on the sideline between the third and fourth
quarters and kept up their sure tackling throughout the final
minutes. The outcome – and perhaps Zook’s dismissal – was sealed
when sixth-year senior free safety Kim Royston sacked Scheelhaase
for a 7-yard loss on fourth-and-goal to give the Gophers the ball
back at the 5-minute mark.
The Gophers punted on their first four possessions, but they got
their first break early in the second quarter when Scheelhaase was
sacked and stripped of the ball by Ra’Shede Hageman. Michael
Amaefula recovered at the 16-yard line, and Gray slipped out of
Steve Hull’s tackle on the next play on his way to an easy
Gray owned the next drive, too, finding Da’Jon McKnight for a
pair of first downs and a wide-open John Rabe from 8 yards out on
third down to stretch the lead to 14-0. Wettstein, the walk-on who
took over four games ago when Chris Hawthorne got hurt, nailed a
couple of kicks before the end of the half, and the Gophers took a
20-point lead to the locker room.
They padded it on their first possession of the third quarter
after a 21-yard punt by Ryan Lankford gave them the ball at their
43. Gray finished the possession with a 14-yard touchdown run,
putting a slick juke on DeJazz Woods at the line of scrimmage to
jog into the end zone untouched.
The Illini, who beat Baylor in the Texas Bowl last year, have
never won bowl games in consecutive seasons. There’s no guarantee
they’ll get invited this time, with more eligible Big Ten teams
than assigned slots.
Zook, 57, is 34-51 in seven seasons, a winning percentage that
ranks 11th among the 13 Illini coaches who’ve coached more than one