Gophers earn first Big Ten win with homecoming victory over Illinois

Running back Kobe McCrary ran for 153 yards and a touchdown, filling in for the injured Shannon Brooks.

Defensive back Adekunle Ayinde celebrates with his teammates after a sack against Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium during the Homecoming game on Saturday, Oct. 21.

Max Ostenso

Defensive back Adekunle Ayinde celebrates with his teammates after a sack against Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium during the Homecoming game on Saturday, Oct. 21.

Jack Warrick

The Gophers had cause to celebrate when Minnesota (4-3, 1-3 Big Ten) won its homecoming and first Big Ten game of the year on Saturday, defeating Illinois (2-5, 0-4 Big Ten) 24-17.

“I think a few weeks ago if we would play that football game, we don’t win,” said Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck. “We win in that football game because I think we’ve learned from our past to create our now, and then we’ll create our future.”

Running back Kobe McCrary had 153 yards on 24 rushes in the Illinois game, along with one rushing touchdown.

The Gophers were leading 17-10 with 4:20 to play after the McCrary touchdown. On Illinois’ next play, linebacker Jonathan Celestin intercepted and returned the ball 31 yards to the end zone to give the Gophers the touchdown.

“I think there’s a lot excitement in that locker room tonight, especially how we won,” Fleck said. “With all the things that could have went wrong, and all the things that did go wrong, and especially with Jon Celestin kind of finishing it off.”

After splitting time with quarterback Conor Rhoda earlier in the year, Demry Croft played every offensive snap during this game.

The quarterback threw an 8-yard touchdown to Tyler Johnson during the first drive of the game, reminiscent of last week when the two connected on  three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter.

Things took a turn when Croft had two interceptions on back-to-back Gophers drives, the second resulting in a Fighting Illini field goal that tied it at 10-10. But Croft figured it out after that. 

He led a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that was capped with a McCrary four-yard rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter.

“If this was a three-four year starter, and we were making mistake after mistake, and it was an off day for him, maybe I wouldn’t go back to that,” Fleck said. “But this is like a lawn mower, you’ve got to continue to pull that cord over and over and over until that thing starts.”

The Fighting Illini answered the Gophers’ first touchdown in the first quarter after a Rodney Smith fumble put the Fighting Illini offense at Minnesota’s 15-yard line. 

The Illinois second quarterback, Cam Thomas, ran nine yards on the first play, and the Fighting Illini leading running back Ra’Von Bonner drove it in, tying the score at 7-7. 

“The big thing was they threw in a quarterback that hadn’t played a ton before,” Fleck said. “They run a lot of toss with him, they run a lot of counter with him, we had to adapt to that.”

Two of the Illinois quarterbacks played substantial time. Thomas was used for running. He had the most rushing yards on the team with 79, but went 2-4 with 33 yards passing. The other quarterback, Jeff George Jr., went 18-23 with 128 yards and a passing touchdown. George Jr. had -13 rushing yards.

“We didn’t really prepare for [Thomas],” Celestin said. “But once we saw him out, we realized he was the running quarterback and they wanted to run a lot of stretch or read option with that running back.”

Minnesota looks to build on this win as they face off against Iowa (4-3, 1-3 Big Ten) in the next game.