CHAMPAIGN, ILL. – The Gophers drew their fifth targeting ejection of the season Saturday, and this one was the scariest one yet.
Illinois wide receiver Malik Turner lowered his head to make an 8-yard catch over the middle and got leveled with a helmet-to-helmet hit from Gophers safety Duke McGhee. Officials ejected McGhee, while Turner spent several moments on the ground.
The medical staff placed Turner in a neck brace, lifted him onto a stretcher and carted him off the field.
"Malik Turner will be OK," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said following his team's 40-17 loss. "He's in the locker room right now."
Cody Poock, Jonathan Celestin and Tai'yon Devers received targeting penalties in the season opener against Oregon State, and Jack Lynn drew one last week against Rutgers. Throw in the Jaylen Waters ejection from the Penn State game — for a personal foul on kicker Joey Julius — and the Gophers have had six players ejected this season.
The Gophers drew only two targeting penalties over the previous four years. Both of those calls were overturned.
"Again, I know what the rule is, and we work on it, but when those [offensive players] are going down that low, it's hard to avoid," coach Tracy Claeys said. "But it's a rule, and we'll go to work.
"I hate to tell them to go down to the legs all the time. Then they're going to be putting their heads down when they tackle, and we've got to stay below the shoulders. But I like the way our kids — how aggressive they are."
A reporter told Claeys there were complaints from Illinois fans on social media that the Gophers initially celebrated the hit on Turner. Asked if his players knew Turner was hurt, Claeys said: "No, they didn't. But any big hit gets everybody excited at first, you know what I'm saying? That was not it at all. We've got good kids."
Defensive tackle Steven Richardson went through the concussion protocol during the week and started against Illinois, though he didn't have a tackle during the game. Poock, who was dealing with a shoulder injury, started at middle linebacker for the first time in four games and made four tackles. Safety Damarius Travis got shaken up on the game's final series but appeared to be walking fine afterward.
Junior college transfer Merrick Jackson didn't have much to show for his first seven games with the Gophers. But he sacked Illinois quarterback Jeff George Jr. in the end zone for a safety in the fourth quarter.
"You haven't seen a lot out of him lately; we play productive players," Claeys said. "It's no secret. Our kids know — at our place, if you want to play on game day, you've got to practice well."
Added Celestin: "We've been waiting for Merrick to finally do what we know he can do and be able to trust him more. So Merrick finally showed us that he can make plays."
Gophers linebackers coach Mike Sherels, who was in critical condition with an intestinal issue in August, celebrated his 32nd birthday Saturday. His wife, Emily, who is expecting twins, was on the trip, too.
Sherels tweeted: "This one is special because I almost didn't make it. Incredibly blessed and thankful for family, friends, fans, doctors and the fact that I get to coach football today! 31 wasn't my favorite year, but I'm heading into this next one with an entirely new outlook on life which just makes everything sweeter. Don't let anyone ever tell you what your limitations are."