Football team breaks 13-game streak

Jeff Sherry

For nearly three hours Saturday night, the Illinois-Minnesota football game at the Metrodome was everything it was expected to be — and maybe less.
A gathering of 34,321 people, the Gophers’ smallest home crowd in more than two years, quickly learned why the teams had only one Big Ten win between them. Missed tackles, key penalties and turnovers were nearly as plentiful as the empty blue seats.
But in the end, all those eyesores could be forgiven and forgotten — the sleepy night came to life and left Minnesota fans with pleasanter images to remember. There was a late comeback drive, a rare Gophers win, and the most-enduring sight of all: a beleaguered coach whose week from hell ended with a slice of heaven.
The Gophers ended an agonizing six-week stretch Saturday night by defeating the Illini, 23-21. Afterward, Minnesota players and coaches celebrated and embraced all the way from the sideline to the locker room. The team had its first Big Ten win in 14 tries, five days after Coach Jim Wacker resigned.
“It was one of the best ever because of the situation,” said Wacker, his shirt orange from Gatorade. “We had our backs against the wall. We needed a win so bad. It was a great win.”
The victory, Minnesota’s first of the conference season, improved the Gophers’ record to 4-6 overall and 1-6 in the Big Ten. It also gave a boost to a team badly in need of one.
After the Gophers regrouped earlier this week, the win helped them complete their process of putting the losing streak and Wacker’s resignation behind them.
“We looked at it as an opportunity, because we knew this was going to be the last couple of weeks we’d get to spend together as a coaching staff and players,” defensive tackle Raymond Baylor said.
“We played with a happier spirit all week, practiced hard and just tried to enjoy each other. When we came together like that it just made everything a lot easier, and we felt more confident. It made us a closer group.”
Until late in the game, neither the Gophers nor the Illini had much cause for confidence. Both teams played with the precision of drunken elephants, combining for seven turnovers.
The Gophers, other than their four turnovers, moved the ball efficiently on offense. They also played well against the pass on defense. Switching quarterbacks didn’t help Illinois, which completed only 14 of 32 passing attempts for 32 total yards.
For much of the game, however, Illinois didn’t need to worry about its passing game; the Illini had running back Robert Holcombe. One week after giving up 297 yards to Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne, Minnesota surrendered 315 yards and three touchdowns to Holcombe.
Despite Holcombe’s success, Minnesota was able to take a 17-7 lead into the fourth quarter. But that lead became a 21-17 deficit on two late runs by Holcombe, the second of which came after a punt bounced off the leg of Gophers return man Rodney Heath.
As in their wins against Ball State and Syracuse, Minnesota came back to win on a late scoring drive. Cory Sauter capped the six-play, 80-yard march with a quarterback sneak from the 1-yard line with 46 seconds left.
The suspense did not end there, however. Adam Bailey’s extra point attempt was blocked, giving Illinois a chance to win with a field goal. Linebacker Rufus Smith ended the threat by intercepting a Scott Weaver pass with 23 seconds left.
And the Gophers breathed a sigh of relief.
“I was sitting on the bench with a towel over my head — I didn’t really want to look,” receiver Ryan Thelwell said. “Then I heard the crowd going crazy, and I looked up at the screen and saw Rufus. That made me feel so good.”
The team members felt good afterward — for themselves and for their coach.
“We went out to win this game for ourselves,” Gophers senior Rodney Heath said. “Then after we got the win, we dedicated it to Coach Wacker.”

GAME SUMMARY
Illinois 0 7 0 14 — 21
Minnesota 0 14 3 6 — 23

First Quarter
No scoring
Second Quarter
Minn. — Atwell 8 pass from Sauter (Bailey kick) 7:09
Ill. — Holcombe 15 run (Rackers kick) 2:40
Minn. — Nelson 16 pass from Sauter (Bailey kick) 0:07
Third Quarter
Minn. — FG Bailey 27, 0:34
Fourth Quarter
Ill. — Holcombe 12 run (Rackers kick) 11:41
Ill. — Holcombe 39 run (Rackers kick)
Minn. — Sauter 1 run (kick blocked) 0:46
A — 34,321
T — 3:04

TEAM STATISTICS
First Downs: Ill. 17, Minn. 22. Rushing Yards: Ill. 333, Minn. 123. Passing Yards: Ill. 32, Minn. 285. Total Yards: Ill. 355, Minn. 408. Fumbles lost: Ill. 1, Minn. 3. Possession Time: Ill. 28:43, Minn. 31:17.

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS
RUSHING — Illinois, Holcombe 43-315, Douthard 5-18, Hoekstra 1-0. Minnesota, Hamner 16-67, Evans 10-74, Sauter 10-(-18).
PASSING — Illinois, Hoekstra 2-7-1-34, Weaver 1-7-1-(-2). Minnesota, Sauter 23-37-1-285.
RECEIVING — Illinois, Mosely 1-19, Dulick 1-15, Majoy 1-(-2). Minnesota, Atwell 7-83, Thelwell 6-131, Nelson 4-19, Kratochvil 3-25, Hamner 2-7, Leverson 1-20.