Linebackers tackle, score and help Gophers earn homecoming victory

The Gophers defense was back to its old self against Illinois.

Linebackers Jonathan Celestin, Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber run into formation on Saturday, Oct. 21 at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers defeated Illinois 24 to 17 during the Homecoming game.

Ellen Schmidt

Linebackers Jonathan Celestin, Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber run into formation on Saturday, Oct. 21 at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers defeated Illinois 24 to 17 during the Homecoming game.

Drew Cove

The Gophers linebackers held the team’s lead late in the fourth quarter, and they even added to it themselves.

Minnesota (4-3, 1-3 Big Ten) and the linebacker group limited Illinois to 282 total yards and had an interception returned for a touchdown in the Gophers 24-17 homecoming win against the Fighting Illini (2-5, 0-4 Big Ten) Saturday.

“I thought we did a better job at tackling,” said head coach P.J. Fleck. “All of the sudden our linebackers got after them and they came downhill, they were fully committing to it.”

Linebacker Jonathan Celestin had two firsts for his career Saturday. 

In the fourth quarter, Celestin intercepted a pass from Illinois quarterback Cam Thomas for his first career interception. Then he returned it 31 yards for a touchdown, also a first.

“It meant a lot,” Celestin said. “Just to be able to catch that, and add a score, just for the team. It meant a lot to help the team out.”

The senior linebacker had played 43 games before Saturday without an interception or touchdown, and he did both for the first time against Illinois. After he scored a touchdown, Celestin pointed to the sky. The linebacker lost his father in April, and he said he dedicated the play to him after the game.

Celestin’s interception return gave the Gophers a two-score cushion with 4:11 left in the fourth quarter. While Celestin had five tackles and the interception, linebacker Kamal Martin also had five, a tackle for a loss of 15 yards and a forced fumble.

For Celestin and the Gophers, the play was a culmination of the defensive ability they showed in the game. Minnesota’s linebackers came up with much of the Gophers action on defense, which included gaining possession on two turnovers in the game.

The leading tackler of the day, linebacker Thomas Barber, had 11 tackles, two of which were for losses.

“I just feel the game is slowing down a little more,” Barber said. “For me personally, I feel like I’m reading the keys better, [I am] just more comfortable in the system too, and the scheme, and my position [and] role on the team.”

Barber has had 10 or more tackles in the last four consecutive games for Minnesota, with a high of 16 against Michigan State.

Minnesota’s other turnover came from defensive tackle Steven Richardson, who recovered a fumble forced by defensive end Carter Coughlin.

The Gophers defensive play held the Fighting Illini to 121 rushing yards, and 161 passing yards. Minnesota’s defense forced three fumbles, but only recovered one, and had three sacks in the game. 

The defense as a whole improved, but the linebackers made sure the Gophers got the victory.

“Something magical happened on that field today,” Fleck said. “That was Jon Celestin. He’s a phenomenal football player, but when you talk about everything he’s been through, as a young student athlete … [those are] the moments why we coach.”