Jeff Horton's cheerful personality has lightened the mood immensely around the Gophers since he took over as head coach last month. But that doesn't mean he's a budding Jay Leno. (Or wait, maybe he is ...)
As he addressed a roomful of reporters after Minnesota's 38-34 comeback victory on Saturday, Horton concluded his opening remarks with "the line I've been waiting to say: 'I might just be the interim coach, but last night, I got to sleep at the Holiday Inn.' "
Um. (Cough.) Yeah, it was quiet in there. (Maybe because he garbled the commercial's tagline, which goes: "No, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express.")
"I thought I'd get a better reaction," Horton said, finally drawing a few laughs.
Anyway, it was that kind of atmosphere, as I wrote about in Sunday's paper -- a genuine, euphoric release of emotion after two months of pent-up frustration. As a bonus, Horton said he told the players, "See you on Tuesday," giving everyone two days off before preparations begin for Iowa in a couple of weeks. (The players will also get a couple of days next weekend.)
Maybe he'll spend the time working on a new monologue.
A couple more things that deserve mention:
- With his 10th score of the season Saturday, Da'Jon McKnight is now one touchdown catch away from the school single-season record. Ron Johnson in 2000 and Omar Douglas in 1993 each hauled in 11 touchdowns.
McKnight's score at Illinois was a beauty, too, a 24-yard pass that the junior receiver caught inches from the side of the end zone while fighting off an Illinois cornerback. "There was a lot of contact, but it's football, it's a contact sport," McKnight said. "Adam's a great quarterback, and I wanted to go up and get it for him. I wasn't even looking [at his feet]. I just caught the ball and looked at the ref. He said touchdown, and that's all I need to know."
- The Gophers sacked Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase three times, remarkable considering they had only five sacks all season coming into the game. The freshman QB was only 10-for-21 for 172 yards, and gave back 19 yards on sacks by Jewhan Edwards, Anthony Jacobs, and a joint effort by linebackers Gary Tinsley and Keanon Cooper.
Meanwhile, give credit to the Gophers' battered offensive line. They had only five healthy players, and gave Ryan Wynn his first start in two years. And when right guard Ryan Orton was injured, senior Dom Alford, who had his knee scoped a couple of weeks ago to repair the meniscus, filled in for more than half the game. The result? Weber was never sacked, though Illinois was technically credited with one when he was stopped two yards short of the line of scrimmage on a scramble.
Still, impressive performance by an undermanned unit. Alford, Wynn, Orton, D.J. Burris, Jeff Wills and Chris Bunders deserve a lot of credit.
Also, big game by the tight ends. Eric Lair, making up for fumbling a kickoff, caught a pair of third-down passes that kept scoring drives alive. Curtis Hughes helped out with the blocking. And Tiree Eure caught his first career touchdown pass, a 14-yarder from Weber.
- Ron Zook wouldn't use the terrible call by the officials on an obvious fumbled pitch and recovery by tailback Mikel Leshoure, who had room to run, as an excuse for the loss. The play was incorrectly ruled an incomplete forward pass, which prevented Leshoure from picking up a first down, and the Illini, who were deep in Gophers territory, turned the ball over on downs moments later. Minnesota scored on the ensuing drive, turning what looked like a 14-7 Illinois lead into a 14-7 Gopher lead.
"Who knows what happens if that's different?" Zook mused after the game. "But we didn't deserve to win."