Minnesota going down fast after 25-14 loss at Illinois

John R. Carter

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – The shiny, gold Micronpc.com Bowl ring Travis Cole wore on his left hand outside Minnesota’s locker room Saturday won’t be getting any company in the jewelry box if the Gophers football team keeps this going.

Minnesota’s 25-14 loss to Illinois at Memorial Stadium dropped the Gophers to 1-3 on the season (0-2 Big Ten) – the school’s worst start since 1993.

The Illini (4-1, 1-1) spent their afternoon proving Minnesota is a long way from earning a third straight bowl berth.

Illinois’ defense prevented the Gophers from reaching the redzone on nine of 11 possessions, while the Illini offense lost yardage on just two plays from scrimmage – one of those when running back Rockey Harvey fell down on a carry.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. “We knew that. They confirmed it today.”

The Gophers have seven games remaining to pull their season back together, and Minnesota needs to win at least five of those to become bowl eligible.

“It’s a little different right now,” Cole said. “We need a big win.”

After two years of dominating victories over the Illini, Minnesota came out flat in the Land of Lincoln.

Minnesota’s offense gained just 98 yards on 22 plays in the first half, with 37 of those yards coming in the final 1:15 of the half as the Gophers tried to run out the clock.

Minnesota attempted only four passes in the half and managed a mere five first downs.

“We just couldn’t get anything going,” Cole said. “It wasn’t the crowd. It wasn’t the stadium. It wasn’t being away from home. It wasn’t like we haven’t beat Illinois before.

“We’re a team that strives on first downs. If we get a couple in a row we start clicking. We just didn’t get it going.”

But despite offensive struggles, Minnesota hung around far longer than it deserved.

After driving the ball downfield with ease in the first half, Illinois hit a roadblock in the redzone. The Illini were stopped inside Minnesota’s 5-yard line three times, forcing Illinois to settle for field goals on three of its four scoring drives.

The Illini’s inability to put sevens instead of threes on the scoreboard left the Gophers within striking distance.

“I was so thankful we were going in 13-0,” Mason said of the halftime score.

A blocked punt led to another Illinois field goal making it 16-0 early in the third quarter.

Minnesota finally responded with two touchdown drives – the first capped by a seven-yard run by Marion Barber III, the second a 16-yard slant to Antoine Burns – in the third quarter to get back into the game.

The two scores, sandwiched by another Illinois field goal, made it 19-14 Illini with over two minutes left in the third.

With the bundled-up, orange-and-blue-clad crowd of 53,225 quiet, the Gophers held the momentum. At least until it all fell down – literally.

On the Illini’s ensuing drive, quarterback Kurt Kittner, who last week admitted his team was out for revenge following the past two seasons’ routs, hit Brandon Lloyd for a 59-yard score.

Minnesota cornerback Justin Fraley, the defender on the play, apparently tripped over his own feet, allowing Lloyd to walk into the endzone.

“That was a big play,” safety Jack Brewer said. “Fraley had good coverage, he just fell down. He worked his butt off out there, but that happens; it’s football.”

While Lloyd’s play ultimately sent the Gophers home, the sophomore wide receiver caused headaches for Minnesota’s secondary all day. Lloyd ended the afternoon with eight receptions for 168 yards and two scores.

Lloyd’s teammates weren’t much kinder to the Gophers. A trio of running backs combined to push and shove for 198 yards to complement Kittner’s 239 yards passing.

“Once we got the running game going, the passing game is a lot easier,” Kittner said. “We did a great job of really pounding them today.”

Now comes the preparation for another tough test: Northwestern. A must-win game already? The Gophers better take that attitude with them to back to Illinois – this time Evanston – because one more loss could be the dagger.

“We have to strap ’em up now and go after it,” Brewer said. “We can’t expect good things to happen – we have to make them happen.”