Gophers get refresher in winning

Ben Goessling

It didn’t do anything to repair the damage inflicted on Minnesota’s football team over the last two weekends – not even close.

Any diatribes about how the Gophers defense has regained its footing or how the offense is once again rolling must be tempered by this simple fact: Minnesota’s 45-0 win Saturday was, after all, against an Illinois team that hasn’t won a Big Ten game since Nov. 23, 2002.

But when Minnesota coach Glen Mason walked into the interview room after Minnesota’s first win in three weeks, it was quite obvious the Gophers got exactly what they needed – a chance to feel good about themselves again.

“I’m not exactly sure how to start this off,” Mason said. “It’s been a while since I won a football game.”

After back-to-back losses at Michigan, and after Michigan State trampled the Gophers’ Rose Bowl hopes and sent them into a long week of soul-searching, Minnesota took its first step toward salvaging a season perilously close to careening out of control.

The Gophers defense, gashed for 636 yards against the Spartans last Saturday, responded by posting its first shutout in Big Ten play since 1990.

Marion Barber III, who hadn’t broken 100 yards since Sept. 18 at Colorado State, ran for 138 yards, scored two touchdowns and threw another.

And Minnesota (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) still harbors a reasonable shot at its first New Year’s Day bowl game since 1962.

“I don’t know if we could have lost three in a row. That probably would have killed us,” quarterback Bryan Cupito said. “We just came out today and put it back together.”

Minnesota slogged to just three points in the first quarter, punting on its first two drives before kicking a field goal. But the Gophers’ ground game finally started to get untracked at the end of the quarter.

Laurence Maroney broke a 20-yard run on the quarter’s second-to-last play, and Barber finished that drive with a 44-yard-touchdown run early in the second quarter.

The Gophers’ lead swelled to 17-0 by halftime, and Minnesota racked up 21 more points on Illinois (2-6, 0-5 Big Ten) in the third quarter.

Despite the big lead, the Gophers still had their fair share of warts on defense. Minnesota’s tackling troubles weren’t completely solved, and the absence of injured starting defensive backs Justin Fraley and Trumaine Banks left the Gophers with a patchwork secondary for the second straight week.

But the Gophers played their most aggressive defensive scheme of the season, registering 11 tackles for loss, forcing two fumbles and posting four sacks.

For a unit badly humbled in Michigan, Saturday brought a badly needed chance to regain some face.

“It’s always good when the outside world is getting down on you and you’re getting down on yourselves,” defensive end Darrell Reid said. “It’s always good to answer the call, and I think we did that this week.”

After Michigan beat Purdue on Saturday, handing the Boilermakers their second-straight loss, Minnesota moved up to fifth place in the conference standings. The Gophers play two of the four teams ahead of them and could reasonably make the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1 in Tampa, Fla., if they win out.

On Saturday, however, the conference standings weren’t the most important factor.

“It was a complete game,” Mason said. “I don’t know what else I can say. I’m a happy coach today.”

It was the first time he’s been able to say that in a while.