They’re back: Gophers run past Illini

Both Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III ran for more than 100 yards, leading Minnesota back onto the winning track.

Aaron Blake

With just under seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter Saturday at Memorial Stadium, Minnesota quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq faked right, rolled out left and found a rumbling Jarod Posthumus in the end zone for a touchdown.

The score was inconsequential to the game. But the catch by the tight end, who fumbled the opening kickoff Oct. 18 versus Michigan State, capped off a step in the right direction for the Gophers after a pair of losses.

It was also the first career touchdown for Posthumus.

No. 24 Minnesota (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten) beat lowly Illinois (1-8, 0-5) 36-10 by avoiding one big quarter for their opponent and not turning the ball over, things that had doomed the team in its past two games.

“We lost the last two weeks in tough games where kids put a tremendous amount of effort, physically and emotionally, into the preparation of it and came up dry,” Gophers coach Glen Mason said. “It becomes a long season.”

Posthumus’ fumble came right between two quarters the Gophers would like to forget – a 31-point fourth where Michigan stole the game 38-35 on Oct. 10, and a 17-0 first quarter the Spartans used to set the tone and hold Minnesota down throughout in a 44-38 win.

“This was huge,” senior safety Justin Isom said. “It was so close the last two weeks. We needed something to remind us that we are a good team. I think we proved that today.”

In fact, the Gophers got plenty to remind them that many of them are good players as well.

Five players put up significant numbers on offense. Tailbacks Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III rushed for 179 and 129 yards, respectively, and Maroney had a pair of touchdowns.

Abdul-Khaliq continued his solid play at quarterback, throwing 12-for-15 for 237 yards and three touchdowns. His favorite targets Saturday were starting receivers Aaron Hosack and Jared Ellerson.

Hosack was wide open for an 80-yard touchdown bomb in the second quarter and finished with his second straight 100-yard game, recording 112 yards on three catches. Ellerson put in another strong effort with four catches for 87 yards and a touchdown.

The team as a whole accumulated a season-high total of 575 yards – 338 rushing and 237 passing.

But more important than any individual stats or season-highs, Minnesota was able to put up a stat it hasn’t tallied since Oct. 4 – a “W.”

The Gophers avoided one bad quarter that had doomed them two straight weeks. In fact, the Illinois offense was ineffective throughout much of the game.

But there was a point when the momentum seemed to shift in the Illini’s favor.

In the second quaarter, minutes after Hosack’s long touchdown catch, Illinois punched in a touchdown for its first score of the game to come within 17-7.

The Illini forced a pair of punts soon afterward, and eventually found themselves first-and-goal from the Minnesota 10-yard line with a chance to come within three points just before halftime.

After an incomplete pass on first down, Illinois quarterback Dustin Ward fired into the middle of the end zone, past tight end Melvin Bryant and into the hands of Isom.

Isom quickly dropped to the ground to down the ball and the spirit of a struggling Illinois squad.

“They had run some of that stuff the series before,” defensive coordinator Greg Hudson said. “Coach (David) Lockwood is our expert in the passing game, and he made a couple adjustments on the sideline for the next time they went to that formation. He did a great job right there, and that’s on coach Lockwood. The kids executed it and Ice caught the ball.”

The interception was not only a huge momentum-shifter for Minnesota, but it also won the turnover battle 1-0, which was a big point of emphasis for the team after last week.

The Gophers lost three turnovers and didn’t force any against Michigan State, and the Spartans scored 17 points off those mistakes.

On Saturday, the Minnesota offense did its part by squeezing the ball in the drizzly conditions, and Isom’s pick sucked the life out of an upstart Illinois offense.

“No matter what’s going on, if you win the turnover battle, you’ve got a chance,” Hudson said. “That’s one thing we control, and it has nothing to do with talent.”

Minnesota displayed both control and talent throughout much of the game, going to 3-0 on the road in the Big Ten versus 0-2 at home.

A passing game that struggled against the Wolverines and a running game that struggled against the Spartans both showed up to play Saturday, and the defense did its part by allowing just 10 points.

The Illini offense tallied 339 yards of total offense thanks to a decent day from Ward, who was 17-for-32 for 221 yards in place of the injured Jon Beutjer.

But without a dominant quarter or any extra possessions off of turnovers, Illinois was overmatched and overpowered by Minnesota.