In a game neither team seemingly wanted to win, Minnesota came up big in the fourth quarter to beat Illinois 24-17.
The victory ended a three-game skid for the Gophers and earned head coach P.J. Fleck his first Big Ten victory.
Fleck's strategy to change quarterbacks and start Demry Croft didn't exactly spark the offense, which gained 339 yards -- 292 of those on the ground -- and converted just 3 of 11 third downs.
The defense, however, held Illinois to 282 yards and came up with a big touchdown off an interception just when the Gophers needed it.
In the end, it all added up to a win, which is all that really matters no matter the statistics.
Here's a recap of Saturday night's game (Story | Photos):
PLAYER OF THE GAME
With Shannon Brooks out with an injury, senior running back Kobe McCrary finally got his chance -- and he made the most of it. McCrary had a career-high 153 yards on 24 carries and scored a 4-yard touchdown in which he just kept moving his legs and powered through a few would-be tacklers. To say this game came out of nowhere would not be an exaggeration. McCrary entered the game with 115 yards this season, 107 of which came in a blowout win over Middle Tennessee State. Beyond that game, McCrary had eight yards on five carries. Last year he had 242 yards, but 176 came against FCS Indiana State. This is certainly a game he'll never forget.
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DON'T FORGET ABOUT ME
Merrick Jackson had only three tackles in the game, but had two of the bigger stops. In the second quarter, Jackson just absolutely throttled running back RaVon Bonner with the ball popping loose (although Carter Coughlin, who had two sacks as well, later got credit for the forced fumble, it was Jackson's hit which set up the damage). In the fourth quarter, on a fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 30, Jackson as well as Jacob Huff stuffed Bonner to force the turnover on downs. This was an early candidate for the key play of the game, except Demry Croft threw an interception to give the ball back to Illinois. Nevertheless, it thwarted an Illini scoring attempt.
With 4:11 left in the game, Jon Celestin stepped in front of an Illinois receiver to intercept a pass, taking it back 31 yards for a touchdown and all but sealing the game for Minnesota. The Illini would make it a one-score game, but Celestin's pick 6 provided the Gophers the insurance they needed to not sweat over allowing a TD with 23 seconds remaining. Celestin picked off freshman Cam Thomas, who was playing his first collegiate game. Thomas, who split time with Jeff George Jr., was used more as a runner (10 rushes, 79 yards) and this was just his fourth (and last) pass of the game.
47 -- passing yards for Minnesota. Demry Croft certainly earned the starting quarterback job after his performance last week in the loss to Michigan State. But now, well, P.J. Fleck might have another quandary on his hands. Croft completed just 5 of 15 passes for the 47 yards with a long of 19. Worse, he threw interceptions on two of his last three passes of the game. The 47 passing yards were the fewest for Minnesota in a game since 1999.
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THEY SAID IT
"I was really proud of how Kobe put people on his shoulders, literally. That last touchdown, that's all want-to, heart, grit, toughness and he finished the drive." -- head coach P.J. Fleck on Kobe McCrary's touchdown.
"My mindset was to make sure the running backs didn't skip a beat, I knew I had to step in and fill his role. We came in the game and we had to dominate the line of scrimmage. We had to run the ball. Coach got me prepared, so I just ran hard like I did." -- McCrary.
"It meant a lot to be able to catch that ball and score for the team. For me, it was a great accomplishment. It was something I have been trying to do my whole career here. I dedicated that score to my father, so it meant a lot." -- linebacker Jon Celestin on his interception and touchdown.
"They’re a great defense. They were flying around and they had a lot of energy." -- Illinois quarterback Jeff George Jr.
Minnesota travels to Iowa for an evening game, with kickoff at 5:30 p.m. The Hawkeyes (4-3, 1-3 Big Ten) have unexpectedly struggled this season, having lost three of their last four games including Saturday at Northwestern. Iowa is 3-1 at home, however.