Upon Further Review: Gophers run roughshod over Illinois

Minnesota keeps finding different ways to win games.

A week ago, Tanner Morgan lit up Purdue, completing 21 of 22 passes, and the defense nearly let a win slip away. On Saturday, the Gophers used a strong rushing game and a stifling defense to top Illinois, 40-17.

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While Morgan completed only 9 of 17 throws (three for touchdowns), misfiring on six of his first seven attempts, Minnesota ground out 332 yards, its most since Nov. 17, 2017 against Nebraska. The Gophers had been averaging just 115.8 rush yards per game and were under 100 yards in each of its last two games.

With the Gophers grinding out yards and the clock, the defense was keeping Illinois out of the end zone. Minnesota’s D allowed only three points as both of the Illini’s touchdowns came on defense, a pick-six and a sack, fumble, scoop and score.

The Gophers allowed just 248 yards and 3.8 yards per play, while gaining 487 yards with a 7.1-yard average.

Minnesota is now 5-0 for the first time since 2004 and that’s thanks to all phases of the team.

Here’s a recap of Saturday’s game:

PLAYER OF THE GAME

With Shannon Brooks on a pitch count and Mohamed Ibrahim out again, Rodney Smith was the bell cow once again. Smith had 24 carries, his most of the season, and rushed for a career-high 211 yards, the first time a Gopher topped 200 yards in a Big Ten game since Amir Pinnix in 2005 against Michigan State. Smith helped Minnesota set the tone in the first half, gaining 146 yards on just 12 carries (a 12.2 average), the most first-half yards for a Gopher since David Cobb had 148 on Sept. 20, 2014 against San Jose State. Smith would get on the board with a touchdown early in the fourth quarter as well. His 8.8 yards per carry were a career high.

DON’T FORGET ABOUT ME

As mentioned, Brooks was supposed to be limited to around 15 snaps – and he exceeded it. Brooks rushed 16 times for 111 yards with a touchdown. Brooks returned last week after missing most of last season after suffering his second torn ACL, but he had just five yards on five carries. This had to feel good, especially his 21-yard TD run in the second quarter.

 

THAT MOMENT

Minnesota led just 16-10 at the half, but the Gophers opened the third quarter with the ball. The rushing attack from the first half helped fool Illinois. On the first play from scrimmage, Morgan executed a play-fake with Smith and threw deep to Rashod Bateman, who was wide open as the defense bit on the faux handoff. The ball was a bit underthrown, but Bateman was still able to grab it and run for a 59-yard gain. Minnesota would eventually score on a 10-yard pass from Morgan to Chris Autman-Bell, for what proved to be the game-winning points. The Gophers would use the play-fake to perfection again on the next drive on a 12-yard TD pass from Morgan to tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford, his first career catch.

THIS NUMBER

700 – number of all-time wins for Minnesota, the 28th FBS team to reach this milestone.

 

THEY SAID IT

“We want to be balanced. I think the teams that can be balanced at any moment, and can control and sustain the balance, are going to be the most dangerous teams.” — head coach P.J. Fleck

 

“Coach Fleck put it in our minds this week that we were going to have to establish our running game… to have those explosive plays it was relieving.” — running back Rodney Smith

 

“It was exciting to see him go out and have a day. He’s been through a lot.” — Smith on Shannon Brooks

 

“He’s a leader. He’s a great player. Our defense gets better when he’s out on the field.” — safety Antoine Winfield Jr. on linebacker Kamal Martin, who had seven tackles and two forced fumbles

 

WHAT’S NEXT

Minnesota has perhaps its toughest opponent of the season, having to go on the road to Nebraska. Yhe Cornhuskers are 4-2 and coming off a last-second 13-10 win over Northwestern. However, Nebraska could well be without quarterback Adrian Martinez and top receiver JD Spielman, both of whom were injured Saturday.