Minn. unable to overcome slow start

The Gophers could never overcome a 28-7 first half deficit against Illinois.

Football vs. Illinois

Ian Larson

Football vs. Illinois

Austin Cumblad

Adam Weber doesnâÄôt buy into the stigma, but heâÄôs sure aware of it. âÄúThereâÄôs a belief out there that after a big game the Gophers tend to struggle,âÄù the junior quarterback said. âÄúWe donâÄôt believe that.âÄù But Minnesota (5-5 overall, 3-4 Big Ten) did nothing to erase that belief Saturday afternoon as the Gophers were unable to overcome a dismal first half and lost 35-32 to Illinois (3-6, 2-5) a week after an emotional Halloween victory over Michigan State. The Illini brought just one Big Ten win to the TCF Bank Stadium, and though they earned it last weekend in commanding fashion against Michigan, this one reads as a missed opportunity for Minnesota. Bowl eligibility is still a win away. A .500 record in the Big Ten (which would be the first under head coach Tim Brewster) just got a whole lot tougher. And though the Gophers would have us believe this hot-and-cold performance was a fluke, thereâÄôs beginning to be too much evidence to the contrary. After losing three of its last four games, itâÄôs beginning to seem like MinnesotaâÄôs 42-34 win against the Spartans was the anomaly. âÄúWe had a lot of momentum going into this week, just didnâÄôt really carry it over into the game,âÄù senior linebacker Nate Triplett said. âÄúWhen it came down to it, we were just a little flat to start the game.âÄù The offense gained just 81 yards in the first half; Weber was 5-for-17 and threw a gift of an interception that was returned for a touchdown by Illinois cornerback Terry Hawthorne . The Gophers defense, meanwhile, couldnâÄôt stop the Big TenâÄôs worst scoring offense even after it lost starting quarterback Juice Williams late in the first quarter to a left ankle injury. In relief of Williams, freshman Jacob Charest was 10-of-19 for 185 yards and his first career touchdown pass . Charest, who doesnâÄôt present the zone-read threat of Williams, showed poise and accuracy even when Minnesota tried to throw deceptive schemes at him. âÄúWe thought we could disguise him and blitz him a little more,âÄù senior safety Kyle Theret said. âÄúTheyâÄôd sometimes pick it up and made some big plays.âÄù Illinois running back Jason Ford scored from the 1-yard line with one second remaining in the second quarter to dig the GophersâÄô halftime hole just a little bit deeper, and a furious second half effort was never going to be enough to overcome a 28-7 deficit. But that didnâÄôt stop them from coming awfully close. âÄúIn the second half, you throw away your game plan and just try to move the ball any way you can,âÄù Weber said. So Minnesota switched out whatever was in that first half playbook for a much more effective plan. The Gophers finally remembered that the Illini struggled to stop the run; they rushed for 42 yards on the first drive of the third quarter before inexplicably attempting a play-action pass on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line. The decision led to one of WeberâÄôs seven sacks and left Minnesota to settle for a field goal when a touchdown was critical. âÄúI have to throw that ball away and not take that sack,âÄù Weber said, though Clay Nurse was nearly to him by the time he faked the handoff. âÄúWhen the play is dead or nothingâÄôs open, you have to get rid of the ball.âÄù Yet in the second half, Weber was significantly more effective. Instead of launching prayers 40 yards downfield that never found their target, he started dumping short passes underneath and hitting receivers on quick slants and stop routes. He completed 9-of-13 in the second half for 145 yards and a touchdown . After 15 unanswered points, the Gophers suddenly found themselves down just three with over nine minutes to play. But after junior fullback Jon HoeseâÄôs 3-yard touchdown run that brought the game within a field goal, Eric Ellestad âÄòs ensuing kickoff sailed out of bounds. Illinois capitalized on the short field with an eight-play scoring drive to extend the lead back to 10. Even after Keanon Cooper blocked an Illini punt and Ben Kuznia recovered it for a touchdown , Minnesota, out of timeouts, needed to recover an onside kick to have any chance âÄî they didnâÄôt. âÄúItâÄôs unfortunate,âÄù Brewster said of EllestadâÄôs out of bounds kickoff, which proved costly. âÄúOur kicker has kicked the ball very well all year; it hurt our football team.âÄù ItâÄôs an easy play to point at, but there were many plays that hurt BrewsterâÄôs football team Saturday. Yes, the Gophers will probably still make a bowl thanks to Football Championship Series (formerly Division I-AA) opponent South Dakota StateâÄôs visit next weekend. But this was exactly the performance Minnesota seemed to have put behind them after last weekendâÄôs breakout against Michigan State. âÄúAt times, weâÄôre just not playing with all cylinders firing,âÄù Weber said.