Gophers bury Illini in season finale

Minnesota won 27-7 on Senior Day at TCF Bank Stadium.

Minnesota quarterback MarQueis  Gray rushes the ball during Saturday's game against Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium.

Anthony Kwan

Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray rushes the ball during Saturday’s game against Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium.

Samuel Gordon

The roller-coaster ride that was the 2011 football season is over, and for the Gophers, there were a lot more valleys than peaks.

Saturday, however, offered a chance for the team to climb one final peak.

Minnesota often found itself on the losing end of blowouts, but the Gophers found out what it was like to win one of those contests Saturday.

Minnesota sent its seniors out on top with a lopsided 27-7 win over a hapless Illinois team that fired its head coach after the game.

Saturday was also Senior Day at TCF Bank Stadium. The seniors were honored before the game, ending tumultuous careers that have seen several key coaching changes.

âÄúCoach called it the Senior Bowl, and thatâÄôs how we played tonight, like we were at a bowl game,âÄù senior linebacker Gary Tinsley said. âÄúItâÄôs a wonderful feeling to go out like this.âÄù

Head coach Jerry Kill said the group of seniors âÄúset the tone for us going forward.âÄù

Quarterback MarQueis Gray led the charge with 167 yards rushing and two touchdowns. He also added a score through the air.

Gray finished the season with 966 yards rushing, setting a new single-season rushing record for quarterbacks. Billy Cockerham  set the previous mark of 831 in 1999.

âÄúThe offensive line was dominating up front,âÄù Gray said. âÄúThey did a great job of opening up holes for us.âÄù

MinnesotaâÄôs defense, led by its defensive line and linebackers, dominated Illinois all game long.

The Gophers sacked Illini quarterbacks five times and held Illinois to just 160 yards of offense.

Illinois didnâÄôt get a first down until the final minute of a first half.

âÄúThatâÄôs how defensive ball is supposed to be,âÄù senior safety Kim Royston said. âÄúIt was a great feeling seeing our front seven have a great game like they did.âÄù

Wet, windy conditions affected both offenses in the gameâÄôs early goings as the teams punted on every possession in the opening quarter.

Early in the second quarter, Minnesota defensive lineman RaâÄôShede Hageman sacked Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase deep in Illinois territory and forced a fumble that the Gophers recovered.

Gray scored from 16 yards out on the next play to give Minnesota a 7-0 lead. Minutes later, he threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to tight end John Rabe.

âÄú[Gray] made some awful good decisions today. He ran the ball, made good decisions,âÄù Kill said. âÄúHe could be an awful good player. IâÄôm certainly pleased with his progress.âÄù

Minnesota tacked on two Jordan Wettstein field goals, including a 51-yard boot and held a 20-0 lead at halftime.

It was more of the same in the second half.

Gray scored again âÄî from 14 yards this time âÄî on the GophersâÄô first possession of the third quarter.

Troy Pollard put Illinois on the board with a touchdown midway through the quarter, but the Illini never found the end zone again.

âÄúWeâÄôve grown, not only as a defense, but as a team since day one, until now,âÄù Royston said. âÄúThe program is in great hands, and I think thereâÄôs great things to come.âÄù

The win gives Kill a 3-9 record in his first season at Minnesota, and itâÄôs the second-straight year the Gophers have finished with that record.

Part of the reason a three-win season seemed like a success from the playersâÄô perspective Saturday is how far expectations have fallen.

Illinois squandered a 6-0 start to its season by losing the final six games.

As a result, Illini head coach Ron Zook was fired Sunday afternoon.

The coachâÄôs fate had been a subject of speculation for the last few weeks. He was 34-51 in seven seasons. Zook spoke about SaturdayâÄôs loss after the game and was demonstratively demoralized.

âÄúWe didnâÄôt have any offense, particularly in the first half. We turned the ball over, things we said we couldnâÄôt do,âÄù he said.

âÄúWe lost energy. ItâÄôs kind of the way itâÄôs been the last four or five weeks.âÄù

Meanwhile, the Gophers will channel their energy from Saturday into a long off-season in which progress will be vital to legitimately compete in the Big Ten.

Kill said that players will begin speed and strength work Monday.