and Todd Zolecki
Illinois football coach Lou Tepper has coached college football in some capacity since 1967. After all that time, Tepper picked a critical moment in the Illini’s 23-21 loss to the Gophers on Saturday to try something new.
“I did something I’ve never done in coaching,” Tepper said after the game. “With first-and-goal at the one (yard line), I told my defense to let them score.”
Tepper, who is finishing up the season after being fired last Monday, said he usually disagreed with ever letting up on an opponent. But in Saturday’s circumstances, he decided it gave his team the best chance to win.
Minnesota trailed, 21-17, late in the fourth quarter before starting a long drive. With 49 seconds left, Gophers quarterback Cory Sauter hooked up with receiver Ryan Thelwell on a 26-yard crossing route to the Illinois 1-foot-line. The Illini called time out, and Tepper gave his defense the instructions.
Tepper said he wanted his team to have as much time as possible to start a comeback drive. He also said he was confident his kick-return squad could get good field position.
Sauter sneaked the ball over the goal line on the next play, and the Illini’s George McDonald-Ashford returned a line-drive kick from Adam Bailey to the 34-yard line. Two plays later, quarterback Scott Weaver threw an interception to Gophers linebacker Rufus Smith.
Run like the wind
Lou Tepper knew exactly what he wanted his offense to do Saturday against Minnesota. It’s something every team has done against the Gophers since the second game of the season against Ball State: Run the ball.
Why not? The Gophers have the worst rushing defense in the Big Ten. Before Saturday’s game they allowed an average of 239 yards per game on the ground. A week ago, Wisconsin tailback Ron Dayne amassed 297 yards on 50 carries.
So Tepper gave the ball to tailback Robert Holcombe and cut him loose. He didn’t disappoint. The junior rushed 43 times for 315 yards and scored three touchdowns.
“From watching films we saw that most teams were successful against Minnesota running north to south,” Holcombe said. “Our game plan was to run at them until they stopped us.”
Minnesota didn’t come close.
“That’s scary,” Gophers coach Jim Wacker said. “You’ve got to be able to stop the run in the Big Ten, and we just haven’t done that. We gave them some help, fumbling the punt and stuff, but we’ve got to line up and play the run better. That’s imperative.”
Running over the Gophers defense has become a popular trend this season. The Gophers have allowed a 100-yard rusher in nine straight games. The last time Minnesota held a running back to under 100 yards was against Northeast Louisiana in the season opener.
Before Holcombe and Dayne there was Ohio State’s Pepe Pearson (123 yards), Michigan’s Chris Howard (127 yards), Michigan State’s Sedrick Irvin (154 yards), Northwestern’s Darnell Autry (189 yards) and Purdue’s Kendall Matthews (131 yards).
Gophers linebacker Rufus Smith said he didn’t notice Holcombe gaining all those yards.
“When I saw the stats I was surprised,” he said. “I didn’t know he had that many yards. I just thought he was having a four-yard-a-carry day. It didn’t seem like that many yards or that many attempts.”
ù Smith said he considered Saturday the best day of his career. In addition to the late interception, he led the team with 12 tackles and celebrated his 20th birthday.
ù Several Gophers achieved career milestones Saturday. Sauter moved past the 5,000-yard passing mark with 5,023. Thelwell moved past the 2,000-yard receiving mark with 2,105. The win was the 160th of Wacker’s career. He’s ranked 12th among active Division I-A coaches.