Quick Hitters: Gophers put together a complete performance in rout of Illinois

Minnesota excelled on offense, defense and special teams in 40-17 victory.

Nick Jungheim

For the first time all season, Minnesota emerged from a game victorious while avoiding drama in the final minutes when they defeated Illinois 40-17 last Saturday.

The Gophers improved to 5-0 (2-0 Big Ten) in 2019, extended their overall winning streak to seven games and defeated an opponent by more than a touchdown margin, something they hadn’t accomplished yet in 2019. Paving the way to victory was an offensive line that allowed running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks to combine for 323 yards on the afternoon.

Minnesota’s defense atoned for last season’s defeat to Illinois in which they allowed 55 points and 646 total yards. This season’s performance represented a complete turnaround, as the Illini mustered just three offensive points, only reaching the end zone on two defensive return touchdowns. 

It was over when:

Smith capped an eight-play 75-yard drive with an 8-yard touchdown run with 12:48 to go in the game. It was Minnesota’s third touchdown of the second half and extended the Gophers’ lead to 37-17, a margin insurmountable for Illinois’ stagnant offense.

Key play:

On the first play from scrimmage of the second half, quarterback Tanner Morgan, who went 4-12 passing in the first half, connected with sophomore Rashod Bateman for a 59-yard reception. That play set up a 10-yard touchdown from redshirt sophomore Chris Autman-Bell three plays later which gave Minnesota a 13-point advantage.

Five observations:

1. The backs are back.

After missing the majority of last season with injuries, it finally appears that Smith and Brooks are back at full health. Both redshirt seniors ran with power last Saturday, shedding off tackles and fighting for extra yards. Smith’s 211 yards were the most by any Minnesota running back in a conference game since 2005, while Brooks carried the ball 16 times for 111 yards in only his second football game since Oct. 26, 2018.

2. Run blocking looked.

Through the first four games of the year, Minnesota averaged only 2.6 yards per rush. In response, head coach P.J. Fleck and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca decided to start rotating redshirt sophomore John Michael Schmitz in at center for some drives, a move that seemed to energize the team’s run blocking. Tight ends Jake Paulson and Ko Kieft also played well, consistently setting the edge on outside runs. 

3. Tanner Morgan continues to prove his resiliency.

Early in Saturday’s contest, Morgan threw an interception right into the hands of Illinois linebacker Dele Harding, who returned the pass for a touchdown. After completing a Big Ten record 21 of 22 passes against Purdue, Morgan started just 1-7 for six yards last week. However, he went 5-5 for 105 yards in the second half, taking advantage of an Illinois defense that began stacking the box to stop the run. 

4. The defense is playing with something to prove.

Although Minnesota players insisted they weren’t thinking about last season’s defeat to Illinois, it certainly appeared they had something to prove on Saturday. The defense never allowed the Illini’s offense to reach the end zone and star running back Reggie Corbin was held to 68 rushing yards. Now, the question becomes, can the Gophers turn in a similar performance next week against a Nebraska team that in 2018 scored 53 points and totaled 659 yards of offense against Minnesota?

5. Herbers continues to impress.

Punter Jacob Herbers has proven himself to be an asset on special teams throughout the past two seasons. He may not have the most powerful leg, averaging 40.6 yards per punt this season, but he was awarded Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honors after placing two punts inside the 2-yard line against Purdue. Against Illinois, he once again pinned the opposing offense deep in its own territory with a first-quarter punt that was downed at the 5-yard line.