With his first Big Ten coaching victory in his back pocket — a 24-17 triumph over Illinois on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium — Gophers coach P.J. Fleck felt congratulations were in order.
And no player in his mind deserved it more than Jonathan Celestin.
“Something magical on that field happened today, something spiritual, something of a higher power,” Fleck said. “That was Jon Celestin.”
The senior linebacker made the game’s key play, intercepting a pass by Illinois quarterback Cam Thomas and returning it 31 yards for a touchdown and 24-10 Gophers lead with 4:11 left in the fourth quarter.
“When you talk about everything he’s been through as a young student-athlete — what he’s had to cope with and be a leader of his family … This is why we coach. That’s the moments why we coach,” Fleck said.
Celestin’s father, Frederick, was struck by an SUV and killed in Albany, Ga., last April. Celestin dedicated the interception to him.
“It meant a lot to help the team out,” Celestin said. “Personally, it was great accomplishment. … It meant a lot.”
On that game-sealing play, Celestin read Thomas’ eyes and saw a slant pass coming. “I happened to be in the window at the right time,” he said.
Celestin also made five tackles, three solo, while dealing with an elbow injury that’s hampered him the past two games.
“It was a battle. Last week it was more of a battle than this week,” he said. “It’s not easy because that’s what I need to fight off blockers and make tackles.”
In the end, Celestin took solace in the victory.
“It feels good to finally get that first Big Ten win,” he said. “It’s something we’ve been reaching for the past two games and realized we weren’t finishing.”
Saturday, the Gophers finished, thanks in big part to Celestin.
“He’s on his way to doing special things in his life,” Fleck said.
Celestin made five tackles Saturday, three of them solo.
McCrary no fill-in
Shannon Brooks, the co-starter with Rodney Smith at running back for the Gophers, was one of four starters who missed the game because of injuries.
Brooks, who entered the game as the Gophers’ second-leading rusher with 322 yards on 71 carries, suffered a leg injury last week against Michigan State. His replacement, senior Kobe McCrary, picked up the slack and more, rushing 24 times for 153 yards and a touchdown.
Also out against Illinois were tight end Brandon Lingen (ankle), guard Vincent Calhoun (leg) and cornerback Antonio Shenault (undisclosed). Cornerback Kiondre Thomas, who suffered a leg injury Oct. 7 at Purdue and missed the Michigan State game, returned to the lineup but limped off the field in the fourth quarter, and true freshman Justus Harris replaced him, making his debut.
Two other Gophers — receiver Phillip Howard and defensive tackle Steven Richardson — briefly left the game because of injuries but returned.
Among the Gophers’ guests at the game was Kyle Tanner, who during training camp used a T-shirt cannon to deliver the news of a scholarship awarded to Minnesota kicker Justin Juenemann.
Tanner, who attends Central Michigan, underwent a bone-marrow transplant at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. During his stay at the hospital, Tanner became friends with Juenemann, Fleck and other members of the team.
At 16, Tanner was diagnosed with Fanconi anemia. Doctors determined his best hope for a cure was a marrow transplant. Tanner did not have a fully matched donor in his family and turned to Be The Match to find an unrelated donor. The Be The Match Registry is the world’s largest and most diverse donor registry.
• With Shenault out, true freshman Drew Hmielewski took over the punt return duties. He had two returns for 21 yards.
• Former Gophers wide receiver Ernie Wheelwright proposed to his girlfriend, Jaisman, on the field between during the break between the first and second quarter. She said yes.