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
”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
”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
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
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
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
”It’s not just the quarterback that has to pick up and
adjust,” Scheelhaase said. ”It’s also the offensive line and
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