Tracy Claeys didn’t dance. He didn’t even want a game ball. After winning his first game as Gophers head coach on Saturday, Claeys had his mind on something bigger.
“I want that Axe, you know,” Claeys said. “That would mean a lot more to me than this first win.”
The Gophers set up next week’s battle with Wisconsin for Paul Bunyan’s Axe by sweating through a 32-23 win over Illinois, despite the freezing temperatures at TCF Bank Stadium.
Minnesota (5-6, 2-5 Big Ten) stopped its four-game losing streak, keeping its bowl hopes alive heading into next week’s regular-season finale.
With 2:22 remaining, the Gophers were clinging to a one-point lead, and their sputtering offense had gained only 33 yards in the second half. They were hoping to bleed the clock by handing off to freshman Shannon Brooks.
On first down, he gained 2 yards, and the sparse crowd nervously eyed the clock.
On second down, Brooks took a handoff from Mitch Leidner heading up the middle, before sluicing to his left, dodging the Big Ten’s leading tackler, Illinois safety Clayton Fejedelem. Brooks looked up and saw nothing but green turf.
“It’s the greatest feeling, especially for a running back,” Brooks said. “They dream of long touchdowns.”
Brooks raced 75 yards for that one as the crowd rejoiced and exhaled all at once. He also had touchdown runs of 5 and 38 yards in the first half, finishing the day with 174 yards.
As teammates joined Brooks in the end zone for the celebration, Claeys signaled for the offense to go for the two-point conversion. The Gophers already had a seven-point lead. An extra point would have ensured that Illinois could do no better than tie on its next possession.
Claeys went for the jugular.
“To me, that’s a personality thing,” he said. “For 3 yards, you get two points and the game’s over. Let’s go for 3 yards because I don’t believe the other team — if they go down and score, they’re going to go for two points and beat you. I think they’ll kick it and go to overtime.
“So to me, that’s not that hard of a decision.”
The Gophers lined up quickly. Leidner took the shotgun snap, faked the jet sweep handoff to KJ Maye, and waltzed into the end zone untouched.
“It’s something that we had schemed up this week in practice,” Leidner said. “We practice our two-point plays. I was pretty excited that that’s the one that got called.”
Illinois (5-6, 2-5) would have been bowl-eligible with the win, but the Illini will get another chance next week against in-state rival Northwestern.
“After the game, there were a lot of upset people in [the locker room],” Illinois interim coach Bill Cubit said. “But I told them we have one more shot.”
The Gophers won despite being outgained 131-1 in the third quarter and 433-343 for the game.
“It’s hard to hang on to the ball and do things if you don’t play well on third downs,” said Claeys, whose team was 6-for-8 on third down in the first half, compared to 1-for-5 in the second half. “So it was a tale of two halves offensively.”
Illinois held Leidner to 88 yards passing, ending his run of four consecutive games with at least 250 passing yards. But Leidner made his best drive count.
With the Gophers leading 14-13, they got the ball with 3:39 remaining in the second quarter. Leidner led them on a 74-yard drive, completing eight of nine passes.
After rushing to the 1 for a first down, Leidner spiked the ball with 14 seconds remaining. The Gophers tried to run a quarterback sneak, but the officials ruled that Leidner was short of the goal line.
Minnesota called its last timeout with 8 seconds remaining. They figured they could try a pass and kick a field goal if it fell incomplete. Leidner threw a fade pass to 6-5 freshman Rashad Still, who made the leaping catch and stayed in bounds for the touchdown.
“We’ve worked on that a lot since the summer,” Still said. “So we already knew the routine.”
With their offense sputtering in the second half, the Gophers had to lean on their banged-up defense. But they came up with some big plays, with none bigger than freshman Julian Huff’s third-down sack of Wes Lunt with 3:50 remaining.
Claeys knew the win wasn’t pretty, but he was glad to have it, knowing the Gophers can reach a bowl if they can reclaim that Axe for the first time since 2003.