Gophers complete comeback to knock off Illinois

Running back DeLeon Eskridge breaks a tackle to complete a Gophers touchdown Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium.  Running for a total of 61 yards, Eskridge provided three of five Minnesota touchdowns.

Running back DeLeon Eskridge breaks a tackle to complete a Gophers touchdown Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium. Running for a total of 61 yards, Eskridge provided three of five Minnesota touchdowns.

Josh Katzenstein

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. âÄì After nine consecutive losses, the Minnesota football team just wanted to have fun on Saturday against Illinois. Interim head coach Jeff Horton told the Gophers on Friday night that enough was enough and explained that it was time to take the King Kong-sized monkey off their back. And when junior running back DeLeon Eskridge plunged into the end zone for a two-yard touchdown run that gave Minnesota a 38-34 lead over the Illini with just 16 seconds remaining, that monkey began to slide off. Two plays later, cornerback Troy Stoudermire intercepted Eddie McGeeâÄôs pass and ran around the field until the clock ran out, shaking the monkey clean off in the process. The Gophers (2-9, 1-6 Big Ten) went to Champaign, Ill., and tasted victory for just the second time this season and for the first time since beating Middle Tennessee State on Sept. 2. âÄúI forgot what that feeling feels like,âÄù said quarterback Adam Weber, who orchestrated the GophersâÄô 80-yard touchdown drive with just 2:44 remaining. âÄúWhen you have so many losses in a row, it builds up and builds up. âÄúThat celebration after the game and in the locker room was unbelievable. ThatâÄôs what you play football for.âÄù Eskridge said he couldnâÄôt control his excitement after scoring the go-ahead touchdown, his third of the game. He had only scored three touchdowns all season coming in. The Gophers felt a little looser before SaturdayâÄôs game, and after Eric EllestadâÄôs season-long 45-yard field goal split the uprights to give them a 17-7 lead at halftime, Horton said he had to calm the team down. Minnesota hadnâÄôt had a halftime lead since an Oct. 2 loss to Northwestern. They didnâÄôt settle down by the start of the third quarter, though, and the Illini scored on a methodical 12-play, 80-yard drive lasting 5:22. Then the wheels seemed to fall off as tight end Eric Lair âÄî one of most sure-handed players on the team âÄî failed to catch a short kickoff. Illinois recovered LairâÄôs fumble and took a 20-17 lead four plays later when redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase hit freshman wide receiver Spencer Harris for a 17-yard touchdown pass. Still, the Gophers didnâÄôt panic as Weber, who finished 20-of-36 for 225 yards and two touchdowns, led another scoring drive. Two plays after finding Lair open down the middle for a 27-yard pass on third-and-14, he threw the ball 24 yards toward the end zone and watched DaâÄôJon McKnight come down with the score âÄî his 10th receiving touchdown this season âÄî to take back the lead, 24-20. But the Illinois offense was finally moving consistently against a Gophers defense that held the Illini to just 149 yards and eight first downs in the first half. Illinois scored touchdowns on two of its next three drives and took a 34-24 lead when Mikel Leshoure went untouched on a 55-yard touchdown run, helping the junior eclipse 100 yards rushing for the sixth time this season. He had 141 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries. One of the players that couldnâÄôt track down Leshoure was Stoudermire, and despite being winded after chasing him, Stoudermire immediately went back onto the field to receive the kickoff. As heâÄôs done so often in his career, Stoudermire found a hole and exploited it for a career-long 90-yard return, giving the Gophers the ball at the Illinois 4-yard line and hope with 8:14 left. âÄúThat was huge,âÄù Horton said. âÄúWhen youâÄôre looking at it, youâÄôre thinking, âÄòDo we have to go into the two-minute [offense] because we need to score twice?âÄô And obviously he took that out of it with that return.âÄù Two plays later, Eskridge scored on a 4-yard run to close the gap to three. He only had 49 yards on 14 carries, but his blockers made holes near the goal line. âÄúThey were just really motivated,âÄù he said. âÄúWe havenâÄôt been closing out and finishing good enough, and I guess we just said, âÄòforget itâÄô today.âÄù The Gophers then had to rely on what had been their AchillesâÄô heel all season âÄî a defense that struggled to tackle and pressure the quarterback. The defense forced the Illini into consecutive three-and-outs, and the Gophers took the ball back with 2:44 left. âÄúWeâÄôve got to get off the field and make some plays and we did,âÄù said linebacker Gary Tinsley who had a team-high 12 tackles and shared one of the teamâÄôs three sacks. âÄúItâÄôs something that weâÄôve been struggling with all year, trying to get off the field on third down, but we finally did it. I thought that was a big chance for us to win.âÄù MarQueis Gray and Victor Keise each dropped a pass before Weber took off on the 29-yard run that McKnight said made him look like Michael Vick. Minnesota later moved into field-goal range with a 15-yard penalty on Travon Bellamy for a late hit on a Duane Bennett run. Two plays later, Weber threw a screen to Bennett who gained 25 yards to move the Gophers just six yards from the end zone. On third-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Eskridge scored to make the upset over Illinois (5-5, 3-4) a reality and give the Gophers a much-needed win that will surely lift their confidence for a Nov. 27 game against Iowa as well as a 2011 season facing plenty of uncertainty. âÄúDuring the game, you could just see that we believed,âÄù Eskridge said. âÄúThat was really a big thing that we believed we could win, and we actually did it.âÄù