CHAMPAIGN, ILL. – That Gophers defense that gave up three touchdowns of 50 yards or longer against Maryland? It’s back.
The Minnesota defense that saw Nebraska shred it for four TDs of 35 yards or longer? Say hello again.
Big play after big play after big play added up to the Gophers getting run out of Memorial Stadium by Illinois to the tune of 55-31 on Saturday.
Illinois gashed the Gophers for touchdown plays of 72, 72, 67, 30 and 77 yards, and the Fighting Illini amassed 646 yards of offense — 430 rushing, 216 passing — in overwhelming coordinator Robb Smith’s defense. Illinois, supported by an announced crowd of 35,774, averaged 10.8 yards per play.
“Defensively, we didn’t tackle anybody tonight,’’ Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “Didn’t tackle anybody. … Some of the speed on our defense was exposed when they were able to run away from us.’’
The Gophers (4-5, 1-5 Big Ten) saw any bowl aspirations they might have had take a serious, if not fatal, blow. Instead of beating the Illini (4-5, 2-4) for Fleck’s first Big Ten road win and a two-game win streak, the Gophers remained stuck in the Big Ten West basement.
Reggie Corbin rushed 13 times for 213 yards and two touchdowns, and quarterback AJ Bush Jr. completed 18 of 25 passes for 216 yards and two TDs and rushed 14 times for 127 yards and two scores for the Illini.
“It was not a very good football game for us,’’ Fleck said. “We did not play well, and that falls 100 percent on me.’’
Illinois did just what most of the other Big Ten opponents have against the Gophers — burn them for big touchdown plays. In conference play, Minnesota’s defense has allowed 21 TDs of 20 yards or longer, 17 of 30 yards or more, 13 of 40 yards or more and seven of 50 yards or more.
Though the defense bears the large majority of the blame for the loss, Minnesota’s offense didn’t exactly have a banner day, either. Facing a defense that was giving up 569 yards and 46.7 points per Big Ten game — and one that gave up 712 yards at Maryland last week — the Gophers offense couldn’t keep up. Minnesota was forced to punt three times in the first half as Illinois built its lead. Down 24-17 entering the third quarter, the Gophers had three possessions end in punts and two end with lost fumbles, as Illinois stretched the lead to 45-17.
“We’ve just got to be better, come out better and execute,’’ said Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan, who completed 14 of 27 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns.
The Gophers finished with 438 total yards — 152 in the fourth quarter with the game out of reach. Rashod Bateman caught seven passes for 175 yards, including TD grabs of 61 and 86 yards in the fourth quarter. Mohamed Ibrahim rushed 18 times for 98 yards and two TDs.
The theme of the game was set early, with Corbin breaking free for a 72-yard TD run on the second play from scrimmage. After the Gophers tied it 7-7 on Ibrahim’s 4-yard run, Illinois struck again when running back Dre Brown — not to be outdone by Corbin — sliced through the Gophers defense for a 72-yard TD run on the second play of the possession for a 14-7 lead.
“Execution and tackling,’’ Gophers linebacker Blake Cashman said, pointing to the defense’s problems. “It’s a problem we’ve been dealing with all year. When you look at all their big, explosive plays, it came down to tackling.’’
A 10-play, 77-yard march capped by Ibrahim’s 1-yard TD run cut the lead to 17-14 only nine seconds into the second quarter before Illinois used another big play, a 67-yard connection from Bush to Ricky Smalling, for a 24-14 lead with 7:48 left in the half.
The Gophers made it 24-17 on Emmit Carpenter’s 28-yard field goal with six seconds left in the half. Instead of using that momentum, the Gophers couldn’t get their offense moving. And that opened things up for the Illini to attack Minnesota’s defense with more haymakers.
Bush’s 44-yard run to the Gophers 5 set up his 3-yard TD run for a 31-17 lead in the third quarter. “He could throw the ball and run the ball,’’ Cashman said of Bush. “He’d break it to the second level. We just couldn’t wrap him up.’’
On the Gophers’ next possession, Seth Green fumbled the ball away, and the Illini cashed in when Bush hit tight end Daniel Barker for a 30-yard TD pass and 38-17 lead. Corbin’s 77-yard TD run made it 45-17 and removed any doubt in the game’s outcome.
“I’m very disappointed in the way we played, how we played,’’ Fleck said.