Minnesota sends Illinois to 6th loss in row, 27-7

Ron Zook took his team to the locker room for possibly the final

time, facing a 20-point halftime deficit Saturday against

Minnesota.

”There wasn’t much I could say,” the Illinois coach said.

”It’s like I told them all week: `This isn’t about me. It’s about

you. How you want to be remembered, so to speak.’

”I still think they’re a much, much better football team that

what we’ve shown, and that’s what falls on me.”

After a 6-0 start, the program’s best in 60 years, the Fighting

Illini finished with six straight losses.

MarQueis Gray rushed for 167 yards and two touchdowns and threw

for another score, guiding the Golden Gophers to a 27-7 victory in

the season finale and perhaps sealing Zook’s fate.

Troy Pollard’s 11-yard touchdown run in the third quarter was

the only highlight for the Illini (6-6, 2-6 Big Ten). Nathan

Scheelhaase, who was 4 for 6 for 15 yards in a quarterback time

share with Reilly O’Toole, lost a costly fumble on one of his five

sacks, the most by the Gophers in a game in more than three

years.

”When things start going south, I think you start trying hard

and all the negativism maybe gets to them,” said Zook, who is

34-51 in seven seasons. ”But that’s part of life. That’s part of

growing up.”

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 10 eligible Big Ten teams and

only eight contracted tie-ins. Ohio State, Northwestern and Purdue

are all 6-6, too, and the Buckeyes are always a big draw.

”I honestly hope we go to a bowl, and I’m here to be able to do

it,” Zook said.

Leading receiver A.J. Jenkins was held to four catches and a

season-low 30 yards.

”This game was very frustrating,” Jenkins said. ”But we have

to learn from it, regardless if we’re going to a bowl game or

not.”

Zook’s winning percentage ranks 11th among the 13 Illini coaches

who’ve coached more than one season.

”It doesn’t matter what I think. It’s what they think,” said

Zook, referring to university officials. ”I think this program is

on very, very solid footing. I think it’s a pretty good team coming

back. They’re going to have to decide that.”

Zook said he hadn’t spoken with athletics director Mike Thomas

about his status.

”I’m sure when he feels like the time’s right, he’ll talk to

me,” Zook said.

Gray took off 27 times to break the single-season rushing record

for a Minnesota quarterback, giving him 966 yards. The Gophers

stopped an FBS-long streak of 23 straight games of giving up 17 or

more points.

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 their best

performance of the year.

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 for 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.

The Illini 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 Kim Royston sacked Scheelhaase for a 7-yard

loss on fourth-and-goal at the 5-minute mark.

The Illini, even star linebacker Jonathan Brown, had trouble

tackling Gray all afternoon. They couldn’t protect Scheelhaase or

O’Toole.

”It’s not just the quarterback that has to pick up and

adjust,” Scheelhaase said. ”It’s also the offensive line and

everybody else.”

The Illini insisted they had a strong week of practice and came

into the game with confidence. But they’re college kids who

couldn’t help but be distracted at least a little by the

uncertainty surrounding their coach.

”We’re living people,” Scheelhaase said. ”We walk around.

We’re not stuck in a hole. We hear things. You get frustrated when

you don’t do your job, and it ends up getting put on the

coaches.”