Saturday, November 7, 2009

Gophers Miss Golden Opportunity For Successful Season

The Gopher football team could not have possibly looked worse than they did in the first half of Saturday's Big Ten clash against Illinois. Despite some improved second half play, the missed opportunities proved too hard to overcome and Illinois escaped with a 35-32 victory at TCF Bank Stadium.

The 2-6 Illini marched down the field after the opening kick, covering 80 yards on 10 plays, and took an early 7-0 lead. After some alternating punts, the Illini's Terry Hawthorne intercepted an ill-advised Adam Weber pass and returned it 44 yards for a TD and a 14-0 lead after the first quarter. After Kevin Whaley capped a nice drive with a 5-yard TD rush, Illinois scored touchdowns on their final two possessions of the first half and carried a 28-7 halftime lead.

Things improved for the Gophers to start the second half. The Gophers elected to run the ball against the Big Ten's worst rush defense after spending the first half trying to establish some sort of passing game. The result was a sustained drive which eventually took the Gophers to a first-and-goal situation at the Illinois one yard line. After an incomplete pass, Weber was sacked for a significant loss on second down, forcing a missed fade on third down, The subsequent Eric Ellestad field goal drew the consternation of the Gopher faithful, but it did cut the deficit to 28-10 and proved the Gophers could run the ball on Illinois.

The Illini had a three-and-out, and the Gophers cut into the lead further with a 11-play, 72-yard drive capped by a Jon Hoese TD reception. Hoese then scored another TD pass to cut the lead to 28-25 after the successful two-point conversion. The Gophers were down a field goal with 9:13 remaining and all the momentum on their side.

Illinois then had their backs to the wall and converted on two huge third downs, the latter a questionable four-yard TD reception by WR Arreolius Benn after significant contact. The Gophers trailed 35-25 and were forced to punt the ball away with over six minutes remaining after their own drive stalled. Illinois could do nothing on their drive, and were in punt formation with three minutes remaining in the game. Keanon Cooper blocked the Illinois punt and Ben Kuznia returned it the rest of the way to cut the lead to 35-32 with 3:04 to play.

An unsuccessful onside kick salted away the game for the Illini, and Illinois had its second-consecutive victory after starting the Big Ten schedule 0-5.

The decision to onside kick will be debated, but it was the right move. Minnesota had no timeouts left and were faced with a decision to try for a successful onside kick to allow the offense to move 20-30 yards for a tying field goal or to kick deep and hope the defense would stop the Illini. The kick achieved a fine bounce, but the Illini blocked the play perfectly, and it went out of bounds. Of course, Gopher Nation believed a deep kick should have been ordered once it was apparent the onside attempt failed - another nail in Tim Brewster's coffin.

Minnesota was out-gained by Illinois 351-271 in the game. Most telling was the 50 net yards achieved on the ground by the Gophers against the Big Ten's worst rush defense. Much of the poor total can be attributed to Illinois's seven sacks of Weber Saturday, and the Minnesota QB was under constant duress all game. Weber rebounded from a nightmarish 5-17, 74 yard first half to finish 14-31 for 221 yards, one TD and one INT. The Gophers were a respectable 8-15 on third down, but allowed Illinois to go 9-17 the other way.

First half mistakes cost the Gophers in this one. They played poorly and recovered a little too late. Now, the team sits at 5-5 with a non-conference game against South Dakota State next weekend. The Gophers should be bowl-eligible after the game, but they will head into the Big Ten finale at Iowa on November 21 with a Big Ten record of 3-4. They need a major upset of the Hawkeyes to have a chance to finish .500 in the Big Ten.

The team will be kicking themselves for a long time for letting this game go. Illinois's play-making QB Juice Williams did not play for the final three quarters after hurting his ankle, and the Gophers did not take advantage of the worst rush defense in the league. They also did not protect their quarterback to give him any chance to compete. This was a bad, bad, loss.

BTW - A big shout-out to the Gopher Nation fans who stuck this one out. The outcome was in doubt up until the final three minutes, but 50% of the faithful had already headed for the exits. Gotta love that loyal fan base! A much longer piece on this topic is planned for next week.


  1. Thanks for the article article Brian! Great second half comeback from this team! They played their tails off against a very good Illinois football team! Great character from these kids on and off the field! We worked our tails off preparing for this game and I couldn't be more proud of this team! We're going to keep recruiting! These kids were erect! We're taking Gopher Nation to Pasadena this year!

  2. Does J Robinson have any football coachinig experience?

  3. I'm a little disappointed in the lack of football coverage this week, considering it is "Jackrabbit Week."