Pushed by an opponent trying to escape the Big Ten basement, the Gophers returned to their familiar formula to win a conference game for the first time under coach P.J. Fleck — a punishing rushing game that complements a stingy defense.
Kobe McCrary plowed his way to 153 rushing yards on 24 carries, and Rodney Smith added 108 on the ground as the Gophers defeated Illinois 24-17 in front of an announced homecoming crowd of 45,243 Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Gophers (4-3, 1-3 Big Ten) ended a four-game conference losing streak and extended the Big Ten skid for Illinois (2-5, 0-4) to seven games.
“I saw a team that KNEW it was going to win that football game,” Fleck said. “No matter what, they were going to find a way to win that football game.”
The game also marked the first start for Gophers quarterback Demry Croft, who took over in the second quarter last week vs. Michigan State. Croft threw an early touchdown pass to Tyler Johnson but also had two second-half interceptions and went only 5-for-15 for 47 yards.
“At times he looked a little bit hurried and was speeding up the game,” Fleck said. “We have to get him to slow down. When he slows down and focuses, he’s a really good quarterback.”
The Gophers defense, however, bailed out a turnover-prone offense, led by linebacker Jonathan Celestin intercepting Illinois true freshman quarterback Cam Thomas’ pass and returning it 31 yards for a touchdown with 4:11 left, providing a 14-point cushion.
“It’s something I’ve been trying to do for the past four years. I dedicated that to my father, so it meant a lot,” said Celestin, whose father, Frederick, was struck by an SUV and killed in April in Albany, Ga.
Minnesota needed that 14-point edge, because Illinois QB Jeff George Jr. hit Ricky Smalling for a 14-yard TD pass with 23 seconds left. Johnson recovered the ensuing onside kick. The Gophers had to punt after Illinois used its three timeouts, but the Illini couldn’t pull off a miracle play from their 25.
The Gophers started quickly, taking a 7-0 lead on Croft’s 8-yard TD pass to Johnson. Key on that drive was McCrary’s 26-yard run to the Illinois 8-yard line. And it was, eventually, a sign of things to come.
“He is so big and powerful. He is going to play a lot,” Fleck said. “He’s earning himself playing time by the way he runs the football.”
Midway through the first quarter, the Gophers were pinned at their 6-yard line after a punt. On first down, Smith fumbled when hit by Bennett Williams and Julian Jones recovered at the 15.
Two plays later, RaVon Bonner rushed 6 yards for a touchdown to tie the score 7-7.
The Gophers created their own break in the second quarter when Carter Coughlin forced Bonner to fumble and Steven Richardson recovered at the Illinois 33 with 3:29 left. They moved to the Illinois 7, but the drive stalled and the Gophers brought in Emmit Carpenter to try a 30-yard field goal.
Illinois coach Lovie Smith called back-to-back timeouts to ice Carpenter, and it worked. His kick hit the left upright and missed with six seconds left.
In the third quarter, the Gophers started feeding the ball to McCrary, who ripped off consecutive powerful gains of 8, 9, 7, 10, 17, 7 and 5 yards to move Minnesota to the Illini 1.
“I just wanted to keep going,” McCrary said.
Instead, the Gophers went away from McCrary and went to Croft, who lost a yard on a zone read. On second down, McCrary was stuffed for no gain. Croft’s third-down pass in the end zone was incomplete and nearly intercepted. Carpenter kicked a 20-yard field goal for a 10-7 Gophers lead.
The Gophers were moving again in the third quarter, driving to the Illinois 32. Instead of adding to the lead, Croft, under pressure on third down, threw a ball intended for Phillip Howard that Stanley Green intercepted at the 3. Illinois drove to the Gophers 29, but on fourth-and-2, Merrick Jackson and Jacob Huff stopped Bonner short.
Two plays later, Croft threw another interception, and McLaughlin’s 28-yard field goal tied it 10-10 with 10:06 left in the fourth quarter.
The Gophers responded with a go-ahead drive, a 12-play, 75-yard march that was all on the ground. McCrary did the honors, scoring on a 4-yard run with 4:20 left for a 17-10 lead. Smith had a key 7-yard gain on third-and-5 from the 14.
“Coach keeps telling us, ‘Body blows, body blows, and one of ’em is going to pop,’ ” McCrary said. “We were just dominating the line of scrimmage.”
And Celestin added his pick-six on which he followed a Gophers convoy 31 yards into the end zone.
“A few weeks ago if we play that football game, we don’t win,” Fleck said. “We win that football game because we learned from our past.”