The recap: If the Gophers’ victory over the Illini on Saturday seemed like a repeat of the season-opening win over Buffalo, there’s good reason. In both games, the Gophers were pushed deep into the second half before turning to their running game to seize control. Kobe McCrary rushed 24 times for 153 yards — including 20 carries for 109 yards in the second half — and Rodney Smith added 103 yards on 19 carries to wear down Illinois. McCrary’s 4-yard touchdown run with 4:20 left capped a 12-play, 75-yard drive that was all on the ground. Gophers linebacker Jonathan Celestin sealed the victory with a 31-yard interception return for a touchdown on the next play from scrimmage.
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In this era of choreographed touchdown celebrations in the NFL, what transpired after Celestin’s pick-six was a refreshing throwback. As Celestin returned to the sideline, Gophers coach P.J. Fleck took off his headset, looked at Celestin and pointed to the sky. The linebacker pointed skyward, too, honoring his father, Frederick, who was struck and killed by an SUV in April. Fleck then gave Celestin a big hug. “He’s not only an amazing football player, he’s one of the most elite young men I’ve ever coached,’’ Fleck said on WCCO Radio on Sunday.
Sophomore linebacker Thomas Barber led the Gophers with 11 tackles, including nine solo. He has reached double figures in tackles in all four Big Ten games and has 47 tackles in conference play. “The game has been slowing down for me a little more and I’m getting more comfortable in the system and in my position and my role on the team,’’ Barber said.
Sophomore defensive end Carter Coughlin had two sacks against Illinois, giving him a team-high 4.5 this season. He also leads the team with 8.5 tackles for loss, one more than Barber. “My game has improved by just being able to use my speed,’’ Coughlin said. “As I get more comfortable in my position, that has been the biggest difference-maker for me since we started Big Ten play.’’
Smith leaves game
Smith left Saturday’s game late in the fourth quarter after taking a hard hit and was being checked for a concussion, KFXN-FM reported.
Up next: at Iowa
5:30 p.m. Saturday, Kinnick Stadium (FS1)
A once-promising season for the Hawkeyes took another hit Saturday, with a 17-10 overtime loss at Northwestern. Iowa dropped to 4-3 overall and 1-3 in the Big Ten, with the three conference losses coming by a combined 16 points. The Hawkeyes’ usually strong rushing attack was held to 89 yards, and coach Kirk Ferentz has fixing that atop his to-do list. “We’re a better team when we can run the ball efficiently,” he said. “It’s always been that way. That is our plan, that’ll continue to be our plan. We’ll try to do a better job there.’’
Up for grabs on Saturday will be Floyd of Rosedale, the bronze statue of a prized hog that Iowa has kept for the past two years. The Gophers face a tall task in winning it back at Iowa City, where they have lost seven consecutive and last won in 1999.