A Gophers defense said to be making strides mostly backpedaled against an Illini offensive machine that turned homecoming into a rout.
Gophers football coach Tim Brewster said twice this past week that his much-maligned defense is making steady improvement.
He might want to rethink that statement because what happened Saturday night cannot be construed as progress by even the most optimistic of souls.
No, this was something else entirely. It was epic ineptitude. Or worse.
In a season filled with defensive failures, the Gophers gave one of the most embarrassing efforts in years in a 44-17 homecoming loss to Illinois before an announced crowd of 46,604 at the Metrodome.
"I take full responsibility as the head football coach for how our team played," Brewster said. "I take the good and the bad, and we did not play good tonight. Obviously the numbers that we gave up defensively are not acceptable."
Facing a lifeless-looking defense, Illinois romped for 429 yards in the first half alone -- that's not a misprint -- and led 34-10 at halftime. Minnesota allowed 655 total yards (including 448 rushing) for the game, and the final numbers could have been even worse except Illinois showed some mercy in the second half.
Not exactly the kind of performance Brewster envisioned in his first game against his alma mater.
The Gophers (1-9, 0-6 Big Ten) suffered their eighth consecutive loss, and with two games remaining it appears more likely that they will finish the Big Ten season without a victory or tie for the first time since 1983.
Illinois (7-3, 4-2) stopped a three-game losing streak to the Gophers, which included a 45-0 rout in 2004. Oh, have times changed.
"It's a painful process that we're going through right now," Brewster said.
Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber threw an interception on the game's first play, and it was downhill from there. Especially when the Gophers defense took the field.
Brewster insisted his defense had made progress in recent weeks, despite the fact the Gophers are last in Division I-A in total defense and rank at or near the bottom nationally in several other categories.
The statistics didn't support Brewster's claim, and it's hard to imagine he still feels that way after Saturday's performance. Illinois, which owns the nation's No. 8 rushing attack, had its way with the run and pass and toyed with the Gophers in the first half.
Here was the first-half carnage: Illinois had 255 rushing yards, 174 passing yards, 17 first downs and nine plays that went at least 15 yards.
Illinois tailback Rashard Mendenhall finished with 201 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries. Illinois has one of the nation's worst passing games, but that didn't matter. Juice Williams completed 14 of 21 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns. Williams also rushed for 133 yards and a touchdown.
"They attacked us hard," Gophers safety Dominique Barber said. "They came out the first half and hit us in the mouth. They threw the first punch, and we were never able to bounce back."
Said Brewster: "We just weren't up to the challenge of stopping those guys."
The Gophers had a disastrous start to set the tone for the game. They had a turnover on the first play of the game, a potential fumble recovery overturned by instant replay, gave up 173 total yards and two touchdowns and committed four penalties for 36 yards.
All in the first quarter.
Illinois wide receiver Jacob Willis beat freshman cornerback Ryan Collado for a 47-yard touchdown catch on Illinois' first possession. Illinois' Jeff Cumberland torched freshman safety Curtis Thomas for a 22-yard touchdown catch on the second possession. Mendenhall later ripped off a 64-yard touchdown run that gave Illinois a 21-3 lead, and it was never a ballgame after that.
Minnesota's offense had no chance to keep pace. Weber completed 18 of 31 passes for 208 yards and one touchdown. But the Gophers managed only 95 yards rushing on 31 carries.
"We all understand it's a process, and it's painful right now," Brewster said. "It really hurts, and people don't have any real understanding of how bad it really does hurt."
|Boston - WP: M. Ott||4||FINAL|
|Minnesota - LP: M. Hoffman||3|
|UC Santa Barbara||38|
|San Diego St||73|
|Utah Valley U||83|
|Cal State Fullerton||56||FINAL|
|Long Beach State||66|
|Sam Houston St||70|
|New Mexico St||70|
|Miss Valley St||68||FINAL|
|(22) Middle Tennessee||69|
|William & Mary||65|
Poll: How many games will the Gophers win in the Big Ten tournament?