CHAMPAIGN, ILL. – Two games, and two losses, into the Gophers’ 2020 football season. That’s likely not what Rashod Bateman envisioned when he decided to return to the team after originally opting out in August.
The reigning Big Ten receiver of the year put up solid numbers — nine catches for 101 yards — in the season-opening loss to Michigan, but he did not visit the end zone. He then had five receptions for 62 yards as the Gophers relied heavily on the run game in the overtime loss at Maryland.
On a beautiful, sunny, 73-degree Saturday, however, that all changed as Bateman became the X factor of the Minnesota offense in a 41-14 victory over Illinois at Memorial Stadium.
Sure, running back Mohamed Ibrahim had 30 rushes for 224 yards and four touchdowns, but it was Bateman who set the tone early, when the Gophers showed that this weekend would be different from the past two.
“Rashod played really well. The rest of the receivers played really well,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “When we’re balanced like that, that’s who we are when we’re at our best.”
The junior would collect a career-high 10 receptions for 154 yards — including eight catches for 125 yards and a touchdown in the first half as the Gophers built a 28-7 lead. Both the production of Bateman and the threat he presented helped the Gophers average 7.5 yards per play.
“He’s a huge playmaker, and we had opportunities to get him the ball,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “He did a great job of getting open and making plays.”
Bateman’s performance brought back memories of 2019, when he caught 60 passes for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns, with a Big Ten-leading 20.3 yards per reception.
The Gophers made it a point to get the ball to Bateman early, and the decision worked well. Morgan found him for a 15-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage and for a 14-yard gain on a slant two plays later. Though that opening possession would result in no points for the Gophers, it showed Illinois that Bateman would be involved.
“Thanks to Coach [Mike] Sanford and Coach [Simon], I got the ball in my hands early,” Bateman said, crediting the Gophers offensive co-coordinators. “They made sure I got a feel for the game the opening drive.”
The Gophers wouldn’t score on their first two possessions, but a big catch by Bateman on their third drive started the team rolling to the rout.
Facing third-and-6 from the Gophers 11, Morgan found Bateman over the middle, and the wideout broke a couple of tackles for a 32-yard gain to the 43. That was the biggest play in an 11-play, 93-yard march that gave the Gophers a 7-0 lead. It also was an example of what Illinois would see all day as Bateman finished with 75 yards after catches.
The skills that have made Bateman a likely first-round NFL draft pick were on display as the Gophers boosted their lead to 14-0 early in the second quarter, when Morgan lofted a second-down pass to the left corner of the end zone. The 6-2 Bateman went up and got it, then planted one foot just in bounds for a 5-yard touchdown catch, his first score of the season.
He actually had to take his eyes off the ball momentarily to make sure he got his foot in. “For a minute, I did. Then I had to look back up at it,” Bateman said. “It was a pretty tough one.”
The Morgan-to-Bateman connection kept rolling on the possession that put the Gophers up 21-0. It started with a 13-yard gain to the Minnesota 36, and then took off with a 29-yard gain to the Illini 7.
The biggest beneficiaries of Bateman’s productivity were Ibrahim and a bulldozing offensive line, who hammered an Illini defense that had to pick its poison.
“Rashod is a threat, and whenever he’s on the field, you’ve got to have two people on him,” Ibrahim said. “That takes one person out of the box. … That helps me out.”
In a matter-of-fact yet also-telling fashion, Fleck summed it up best.
“He played,” the coach said, “like Rashod plays.”