Gophers roll past hapless Illinois 37-7

by Michael Dougherty

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Minnesota football coach Glen Mason refused to say his team turned the corner after Saturday’s 37-7 win at Illinois, but he admitted he has the blinker on and he’s checking his mirrors.
At 5-1 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten, the Gophers have reappeared in the top-25 polls (24th in the AP poll and 25th in the Coaches’ Poll), and are one game away from the six-win plateau they need to make a bowl game for the first time since 1986.
But when Mason was asked if he thought Minnesota’s biggest conference road win in a decade was a breakthrough, Mason said, “No, not yet.
“We’re 5-1 and I think certain things mean something to me, and the day we win six games that’s a little bit of a breakthrough,” he said. “That marks going from a loser to a winner.”
The way the Gophers manhandled Illinois (3-3, 0-3) in front of 49,152 homecoming fans provided a glimpse of a team that is making a quiet statement that says “we belong.”
Wide receiver Luke Leverson, whose 74-yard punt return in the first quarter set the tone, said he was impressed with the way the team bounced back after the heartbreaking overtime loss against Wisconsin last week.
“We were so close to winning last week and all the guys were really down, so we just said we really needed to come out and play hard,” Leverson said. “We had a feeling we were going to win this game, but probably not this easy.”
How easy was it?
Gophers backup running back Byron Evans ran for 72 yards and a touchdown — all on the last drive — and he was the team’s third-leading rusher.
Senior tailback Thomas Hamner dashed and darted his way to a career-high 184 yards rushing on 32 carries, and had a 19-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Quarterback Billy Cockerham also topped the century mark with 100 yards on 23 carries.
As a team, Minnesota chewed up 367 yards on the ground and had a 10-minute edge in time of possession.
“The way we moved the ball like we did today gave the defense a chance to sit down a little bit to rest their legs and feet a little bit,” Hamner said. “It all came together today.”
The defense, a unit that has surrendered only 55 points in six games, entered the game with questions about its ability to defend the pass. And with Illinois quarterback Kurt Kittner ranked second in the Big Ten in passing yardage, it was obvious the Illini would be the litmus test.
And the defense passed.
Kittner was held to 180 yards on 19-of-45 passing — 60 yards below his average. But it was the 11 pass break-ups, three sacks and two turnovers that enabled the defense to shut down Kittner.
After the game, the compliments for the Gophers defense were being tossed around more than Kittner was.
“We just came into this game knowing we had to take the ball away from (Kittner),” Minnesota safety Tyrone Carter said. “We put a lot of pressure on him and put him on his back a lot. Plus we were able to tip a lot of balls, so you’ve got to give credit to guys like Karon Riley, John Schlecht and Dyron Russ for putting all the pressure on him.”
Linebacker Sean Hoffman had seven tackles and two pass break-ups. He said the success of the defense was a combination of good pressure with exceptional play from the secondary.
“That’s probably the best our (defensive backs) have played overall,” Hoffman said. “They didn’t allow (the Illini receivers) much room, and when we had the opportunities we sure put a lot of pressure on that kid (Kittner).”
Despite the solid play of the defense, the solutions to the problems Kittner presented didn’t appear until after the Illini took the opening kickoff and marched down to the Gophers’ 14-yard line. Illinois kicker Neil Rackers missed the 31-yard field goal attempt.
On that drive Kittner passed for a first down on second and five, and then ran 30 yards for another first down on the next play. The Illini fought for another 19 minutes before they picked up their next first down.
During that span, the Gophers put up a 17-0 lead on the scoreboard. But with 54 seconds left in the first half, Minnesota cornerback Jimmy Wyrick was beaten deep by Illinois receiver Aaron Moorehead for a 32-yard touchdown pass.
“To go out and win in the fashion we did I thought was pretty impressive,” Mason said. “Our defense — except for the one lapse right before the end of the half that gave up the score which prevented the shutout — I thought played really well.”
Illini coach Ron Turner said he thought the late first-half touchdown would light a fire under his sluggish team, but was upset by what he saw between the halves.
“I was disappointed with the reactions I saw in the locker room after that,” Turner said. “I was hoping for more energy and enthusiasm, but it didn’t happen. I wasn’t pleased with the looks in their eyes.”

Michael Dougherty covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]