5 things we learned: Gophers at Fighting Illini

Illinois running back Josh Ferguson (6) carries the ball against the Gophers on Saturday in Champaign, Ill. Minnesota's typically solid defense had early difficulties against host Illinois.

Mike Granse/Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Few people saw this one coming. Minnesota went on the road and was favored to beat Illinois, but it was the Illini pulling off a 28-24 upset over the visiting Gophers. Minnesota fell behind early and, despite taking a second-half lead, couldn’t make enough plays when it counted. The Gophers now head into the bye week with a sour taste in their mouths after losing on the road. Here are five things we learned in Saturday’s loss.

1. The wind is out of the sails for Minnesota

Before Saturday’s game, the Gophers were riding high. They were 6-1 and 3-0 in the Big Ten West. There was a buzz on Minnesota’s campus, and players on the team were starting to believe that they could win the Big Ten championship. And with zero losses in conference play, who was to say they couldn’t? But now with a loss in a game Minnesota was favored to win, the attitude in Dinkytown will surely be different this week. It wasn’t likely that the Gophers were going to go undefeated in the Big Ten, but everyone seemingly had Minnesota penciled in at 7-1, as if to assume it would beat Illinois. After leading the Big Ten West last week, the Gophers are now one of four teams in the West with one loss. Minnesota will surely be kicking itself for the way things unfolded Saturday.

2. Two straight weeks, two bad first halves for the Gophers

A week ago, Minnesota was able to overcome a bad first half against Purdue in which the Gophers uncharacteristically surrendered 31 points before halftime. The Boilermakers led by 11 at the half in that game, but Minnesota managed to rally for the win. One week later, the Gophers were starting at the same halftime deficit as Illinois took a 14-3 lead into the locker room. Minnesota seemed to be caught off-guard a few times early by the Illini offense, and Illinois’ defense successfully packed the box against Cobb in the first half. While it was Minnesota’s defense that struggled in the first half against Purdue, the Gophers’ offense was to blame in the early going Saturday at Illinois. Like it did against the Boilermakers, Minnesota did make some second-half adjustments and outscored Illinois 21-14 after halftime. But another slow start proved costly for Jerry Kill’s team, and it doomed them in the end.

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3. Mitch Leidner was Jekyl and Hyde

Minnesota’s offense couldn’t do much of anything in the first half, and that included Leidner. The redshirt sophomore quarterback was just 3-for-10 passing for 30 yards, although that did include a few drops by his receivers. Still, the Gophers couldn’t move the ball through the air. That changed after halftime as Leidner was able to connect on several deep passes downfield. After Minnesota recovered an Illinois fumble early in the third quarter, Leidner hit Isaac Fruechte for a 52-yard touchdown pass on the Gophers’ first play of the drive. His next completion was a 46-yard strike to Donovahn Jones that helped set up a Minnesota touchdown. Leidner later connected with Drew Wolitarsky for a 35-yard gain and had another big pass to Fruechte, this time for 41 yards. For as big as some of those deep passes were, though, Leidner was mostly inconsistent and missed a handful of open receivers. He finished 12 of 30 for 240 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He was also sacked too often when he held onto the ball for too long.

4. You can’t bottle up David Cobb forever

Illinois did an excellent job of keeping Cobb quiet in the first half, as the senior running back averaged just two yards per carry before halftime. The offensive line wasn’t able to get much of a push against the Illini defensive front, and Cobb was hit plenty at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield. But everything changed in the third quarter when Cobb broke free for a 67-yard run that helped set up a touchdown a few plays later. Cobb found daylight up the middle and sprinted into Illinois territory before he was finally taken down from behind. He later scored on a 13-yard run that gave the Gophers a 24-21 lead late in the third quarter. Despite the slow start, Cobb finished the game with 118 yards on 22 carries. However, his fumble in the fourth quarter was costly as Illinois ran it back for the go-ahead touchdown.

Illini 28, Gophers 24

5. It only gets tougher from here

The early part of Minnesota’s Big Ten schedule was where the Gophers needed to rack up victories, and they did just that with wins against Michigan, Northwestern and Purdue. Saturday’s game was supposed to be considered part of the easier portion of their conference games. Now Minnesota is about to face the three Big Ten West teams with one conference loss — Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin — and also has to play host to Ohio State, which entered Saturday with a 5-2 overall record and a 2-0 Big Ten mark. The Huskers are 7-1 overall and riding high after a convincing win over Rutgers, while the Badgers seem to be figuring things out after a few early losses. Minnesota can still win the Big Ten West, but it won’t come easy. In fact, Saturday’s loss to Illinois made things all that much tougher.

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