Gophers become bowl-eligible after 40-17 win over Illinois

In Minnesota’s third-straight win, running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks combined for 159 yards and three touchdowns.

Gophers defensive lineman Hank Ekpe reaches to grab the ball from Illinois at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2016.

Carter Jones

Gophers defensive lineman Hank Ekpe reaches to grab the ball from Illinois at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2016.

Mike Hendrickson

Rodney Smith was a player who must have had more than his fair share of juice boxes.

Smith scored two rushing touchdowns and ran for 100 yards for the Gophers en route to a 40-17 defeat of Illinois Saturday to make them bowl eligible for a fifth-straight year.

Before the game, some players bought Hi-C juice boxes for all their teammates.

“We always talk about bringing juice [and] energy, and we literally have a guy bring juice boxes,” Smith said. “That brings a comfortable feeling to the team and everybody enjoyed it.”

The masterminds behind the juice box motivational technique were quarterback Mitch Leidner and linebacker Nick Rallis.

“We knew it was something that can get the guys a little bit more hyped up [Saturday],” Leidner said. “Everyone grabs their juice box. Some drink it then and some drink it after the game. It’s good to get guys excited.”

The juice boxes had their effect as Minnesota beat Illinois on the ground at a windy Memorial Stadium.

Smith, Leidner and running backs Shannon Brooks and Kobe McCrary all contributed to Minnesota’s ground game with rushing touchdowns.

In total, Minnesota had 48 rushing attempts compared to 19 passing attempts by Leidner.

“I think if you’re going to go down, you go down with your best, so we’re putting the ball in the hands of our best players,” said head coach Tracy Claeys. “[Smith and Brooks] run awfully well.”

The Gophers (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) were up seven at the start of the second half, but broke away from the Fighting Illini (2-6, 1-4) in the fourth quarter. Leidner rushed for a 5-yard touchdown early on and the scores kept coming.

Defensive lineman Merrick Jackson sacked Illinois quarterback Jeff George Jr. for a safety, and after the Gophers got the ball back, kicker Emmit Carpenter hit a 24-yard field goal.

A 21-14 lead expanded to a 33-14 lead in a seven-minute span.

“I’d like to get it over early, but we tried that last week and it didn’t work too well,” Claeys said. “We got up 21-3 early and messed around. I just told them in the second half that I’d like for them to get out to a fast start.”

Minnesota’s final score of the day was a 5-yard touchdown run by McCrary.

Just as the running game was vital for Minnesota’s success Saturday, the wind also played a big factor in various parts of the game. The speed of the wind at the opening kickoff was 18 mph.

The two punters were held to their lowest average yardage of the year, and wide receivers were consistently dropping catchable balls.

“[The wind] was big. It was almost going diagonal across the field, and so it hurt the passes toward the sidelines,” Claeys said. “It made the ball knuckleball a little bit, so we dropped a few of those, but that’s all excuses. We’ve got to catch the ball. Good receivers catch bad balls.”

Illinois found itself in a hole early due to two bad turnovers.

In his second career start, George Jr. fumbled a snap on the Fighting Illini’s first offensive play and defensive lineman Scott Ekpe quickly scooped it up.

Brooks had a touchdown the very next play, making it 7-0.

Later on, defensive back Darius Mosely fumbled a punt return and Gophers defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. picked up the ball.

Smith ran in his first touchdown of the day on the next play — a 20-yard run straight up the middle.

“Shannon was in the game, we had jet motion and the linebackers flow him and the hole opened up huge,” Smith said. “It was just the safety. [I] just had to make a move and score.”

The Gophers held George Jr. to 156 yards, as he completed under half of his pass attempts.

One of his completions was a 16-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Zach Grant in the third quarter.

Illinois was without its leading wide receiver Malik Turner for most of the game.

Minnesota’s Duke McGhee was ejected for targeting after a hit on Turner that caused a 10-minute delay in the game and forced Turner to leave on a stretcher.

It was the fifth time this season a Minnesota player was ejected for targeting.

“I know what the rule is, and we work on it, but when those guys are going down that low, it’s hard to avoid,” Claeys said. “We’ve got to stay below the shoulders, but I like the way our kids [are], how aggressive they are.”

The Gophers’ win made them bowl eligible.

While bowl eligibility is nice, Claeys and Leidner both said the team has a larger goal in mind: to win the Big Ten West.

“We’re looking to go further and be contenders in November,” said wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky. “[The] Big Ten Championship is our sight so that’s what we’re going to be content with. Yeah, we’re bowl eligible, but that wasn’t the goal.”