Gophers’ defense comes up huge in bowl clincher

Dane Mizutani

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Mike Rallis, a normally stoic postgame persona, couldn’t help but smile in the media room Saturday.

And the senior linebacker had good reason to.

The Gophers defeated Illinois 17-3 to become bowl eligible for the first time in three years, and Rallis had one of the biggest plays of the game — a forced fumble that set up Minnesota’s second touchdown.

“We came up with some critical plays in the game,” head coach Jerry Kill said. “A week ago we didn’t make those crucial plays.”

Late in the fourth quarter, the Gophers led 10-3. The Illini had third-and-one at their own 29-yard line and needed a first down to extend the drive.

Rallis said the defense had a good feeling Illinois was going to try a quarterback sneak in that situation.

He was right.

Illinois lined up, snapped the ball, and the teams went to battle in the trenches.

Then — as fast as the bodies clashed on the snap of the ball — safety Derrick Wells emerged down the right sideline with the ball tucked under his arm.

“He tried to extend it over the line,” Rallis said of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. “I saw the ball and tried to get a piece of it, and I knocked it out.”

Defensive end D.L. Wilhite, the team leader with 7.5 sacks, said he had no idea Wells ended up with the ball.

“We knew the sneak was coming, and then I saw people running to the edge,” he said. “I thought they ran a trick play or something … and when I saw Derrick running with it, I knew we won the game.”

Minnesota tacked on a late touchdown to put the game out of reach after the fumble.

Scheelhaase said his coach has told him, “Don’t reach the ball out in those situations.”

“I think it comes down to just me trying to do too much and not doing my job,” Scheelhaase said. “It’s 100 percent my fault.”

Minnesota got off to a poor start and gave up a 16-yard run and a 49-yard pass on the first two defensive plays of the game. It buckled down after that and didn’t allow Illinois near the red zone until the final seconds.

The Gophers allowed 276 yards and forced two pivotal turnovers.

Rallis, who wore No. 51 in honor of the late Gary Tinsley, said this win had a special place in his heart.

“We’ve said all year we were going to do it for No. 51,” he said. “I got the privilege of wearing his number today, and it’s a great feeling to finally get it for him.”

Notes

– Wilhite is tied for the Big Ten lead with 7.5 sacks, and he tallied one of his easiest sacks of the year late in the second quarter on a third-and-four. Wilhite said he heard Illinois’ running back and the offensive tackle communicate that the running back was going to block him.

“I knew a cut block was about to come, and when I knew that, I knew all I had to do was beat the running back, and it would be easy to get to the quarterback,” Wilhite said.

– Minnesota allowed its lowest point total in a Big Ten game since 2004, when it beat Illinois 45-0.

– Gophers offensive linemen Jon Christenson and Zach Mottla both went down with injuries during the game. Christenson left with a high-ankle sprain, and Mottla left with what Kill called a “serious leg injury.” Mottla was carted off the field.