CHAMPAIGN, ILL. – Mitch Leidner had juice on his mind Saturday, and not just because the Gophers were at the stadium where Juice Williams once led Illinois to a Rose Bowl.
When football players speak of “bringing the juice,” it’s universal code for “bringing energy.” But Leidner knew words alone weren’t enough. The Gophers had fallen flat at Memorial Stadium just two years ago, losing to an inferior Illinois team.
So, for this trip, Leidner stuffed his carry-on luggage with something extra: Hi-C juice boxes, one for each player to “get the guys a little more hyped up.”
Apparently it worked. The Gophers turned three Illinois fumbles into points and rolled to a 40-17 victory before a subdued homecoming crowd announced at 40,090.
Rodney Smith delivered his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season as the Gophers (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) won their third game in a row and became bowl-eligible.
“Our goal is to do something a lot more than get to bowl-eligible,” coach Tracy Claeys said. “We’ve been to five bowls in a row now. And our thing is, we get to November, we want to have an opportunity to go to Indianapolis [for the Big Ten title game]. And right now we’re in that position.”
Illinois (2-6, 1-4) is definitely not in that position under first-year coach Lovie Smith. With Wes Lunt and Chayce Crouch injured, the Illini again had to use third-string quarterback Jeff George Jr.
He fumbled Illinois’ first snap of the game, giving the Gophers the ball at the Illini 9. Shannon Brooks ran for a touchdown on the next play.
Later in the first quarter, Darius Mosely muffed a punt, giving the Gophers the ball at the 20. One play later, Smith had a 20-yard touchdown run and his team had a 14-7 lead.
Those two touchdown “drives” lasted seven seconds apiece.
“Those fumbles put us in a hole,” Lovie Smith said. “When you’re not a good football team yet, it’s hard to overcome adversity like that.”
George fumbled again in the fourth quarter at the Illini 12, and the Gophers turned that into a field goal.
Leidner had a tough time passing on a windy day, completing 10 of 19 passes for 112 yards. But the Gophers went without a turnover, while converting the three Illinois fumbles into 17 points.
Minnesota has 69 points off turnovers this season, compared to 16 for opponents.
All three Illinois turnovers gave the Gophers the ball in the red zone, where Minnesota is significantly improved. The Gophers have scored touchdowns on 67.6 percent of their trips to the red zone this year, including five of six Saturday. That’s up from 52.8 percent last year.
“We feel like we can score every time we get down there,” Rodney Smith said.
Smith, who entered as the Big Ten’s second-leading rusher, had 20 carries for 100 yards and two touchdowns. His second score came on a 9-yard run, early in the third quarter, but Illinois trimmed the lead to 21-14 when George hit Zach Grant with a 16-yard touchdown pass.
Claeys thought the ensuing drive was pivotal, as the Gophers converted four third downs. Leidner capped it with a 5-yard read-option keeper for a touchdown on third-and-2.
The Gophers defense did the rest. Aside from Illinois’ 63-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter, the Illini had a span of five drives that went nowhere. On those drives, the Illini ran 11 plays for minus-23 yards with three punts, a safety and a fumble.
Maybe it was juice box power.
“I never realized how much sugar is in there,” Gophers receiver Drew Wolitarsky said. “Twenty-two grams in 6 ounces. That’s not very good. I wouldn’t suggest it.”
Team nutritionist Brittany Francis might have a few words to say about that.
“She said it was a good source of energy, though,” Leidner said.
Leidner and senior linebacker Nick Rallis hatched the juice box idea last year at Purdue, where the Gophers responded with a 41-13 victory. Getting ready to play before another sparse crowd, Leidner felt the time was right to try it again.
Two years ago, the Gophers entered the Illinois game at 6-1 and fell behind 14-0 in an eventual 28-24 defeat. But now Leidner’s Gophers are 2-0 with the juice box thing.
“It’s something that we could easily do every game because it’s only like three bucks for like 10 of them,” he said.
Actually, the Gophers’ final two road games are at Nebraska and Wisconsin. They shouldn’t have any trouble finding energy in those environments.