Underachievers’ rally for impressive victory

by Sarah Mitchell

Early last week, Gophers football coach Glen Mason labeled his team underachievers. Mason did not imply his players and coaching staff had a bad attitude.
They just had the wrong one.
Against the visiting Illini on Saturday, Minnesota (3-2, 1-1 in the Big Ten) — a team beaten by unknown Ohio earlier this season and manhandled by Purdue two weekends ago — played with the mindset of a national champion, drubbing Illinois (3-2, 0-2) 44-10.
“Adversity proves to be one of the best teachers in life,” defensive end Karon Riley said. “We came back this week, we were smart and got our attitudes back together. We just went out there and played as hard as we could and together as a team.”
On Saturday, as a team, Minnesota neared perfection.
Errors were few and far between against the Illini. Even Mason said the team, “will not minimize the mistakes you saw out there.”
The Gophers offense, led by junior quarterback Travis Cole, easily moved up the field on the ground and through the air.
Behind gigantic holes plowed open by the Minnesota offensive line, sophomore running back Tellis Redmon averaged 5.9 yards rushing (31 carries for 189 yards) while scoring two touchdowns.
“The offensive line is doing so well. They’re steaming the people over,” Cole said. “I felt so comfortable when I dropped back, or when I handed the ball off and I’m sure the running backs feel the same way.”
After he got through the gaps, Redmon did the rest of the work, eluding the Illinois secondary. Redmon was also Minnesota’s leading receiver, with three receptions for 116 yards.
Most important, the offense kept Minnesota’s defense and Gophers punter Preston Gruening off the field.
Gruening punted once — quite a difference from his total of eight a week ago — while the defense rocked Illini quarterback Kurt Kittner from his groove.
Under Kittner’s direction, Illinois has averaged 33 points per game this season. But the combination of good coverage and pressure from the Minnesota defensive line stifled the Illini air attack.
“Everybody played hard. They did their own job,” Gophers cornerback Willie Middlebrooks said. “If they went out and made mistakes, they didn’t point fingers. They just went out and had fun and created kind of a frenzy and it just went on from there.”
Breaking from its past four games, Minnesota arrived on time for the game. On the game’s opening drive, the Gophers defense held the Illini three and out.
Minnesota’s offense kept pace with the defense, scoring on its second drive. The Gophers 62-yard drive was capped with a quarterback bootleg. Cole ran in for the one-yard score, establishing his place on the team.
“As a quarterback, you have to take some leadership role,” Cole said. “People look up to you, you’re the one who calls the play. You take control of the huddle. I try to get the guys fired up.”
Cole continued to put the Gophers in scoring situations. On Minnesota’s next drive, Cole took the snap and ran to his left. Seven yards later a stretched out Cole dove under Illini cornerback Eugene Wilson and barely squeezed the ball past the goal line.
When the offense did not have the ball, there were still reasons to celebrate. Many times only the Dome roof could contain excited Gophers defensive coordinator David Gibbs as he leapt up and down on the sidelines, his hands held far above his head.
His defense put pressure on the Illini offensive line and Kittner. At halftime, Minnesota had allowed Illinois just 114 yards of total offense and found themselves up 28-3.
“We got Kurt out of the rhythm,” Riley said. “We wanted to get him out of the rhythm, not let him get back there and sit there all day because if you do, you’ll have a long day because he is a good quarterback.”
In the third quarter, the Gophers dominance in all aspects of the game continued. Minnesota put up six points on two Dan Nystrom field goals while the Illini were shut out.
Illinois scored its only touchdown on its last drive of the game against many of the Gophers second stringers.
Illini coach Ron Turner could only explain the game as a tale of two teams.
“One came to play, one came to fight, one came to compete, one came to play with passion and play with heart and one didn’t,” Turner said. “It’s really pretty simple. We didn’t show up to play and give them credit, they did.”
The Gophers got the praise from Turner they had been searching for all season. Perhaps this week, Mason will label his team overachievers.
“It’s been very frustrating for me because my team’s been underachieving. I take that personally. It’s a reflection of me,” Mason said.
“I really had a feeling that it was fixable.”

Sarah Mitchell covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]