Tracy Claeys often grimaces at the number of young players he’s forced to play because of an injury bug that’s hit the Gophers football team.
On Saturday, that was a good thing.
Four true freshmen saved the Gophers with critical contributions that turned a potentially disheartening loss into a 32-23 victory against Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium.
Claeys said he planned to celebrate his first “official” victory as head coach by eating homemade soup prepared by his sister. His freshmen deserved a surf-and-turf dinner for ensuring the Gophers stopped their four-game losing streak.
Shannon Brooks rushed for 174 yards and three touchdowns, including a 75-yarder that allowed the Gophers to breathe a sigh of relief.
Julian Huff collected 1 ½ sacks and a fumble recovery. His fourth-quarter sack was the most important play of the game.
KiAnte Hardin recorded a pass breakup in the end zone, a deflected pass that was intercepted and 165 return yards on kickoffs.
Rashad Still caught a leaping 1-yard touchdown pass on a fade with five seconds left in the first half.
The Gophers probably don’t win without those collective efforts.
“This will pay off big time in the future years for Gopher football,” Claeys said.
Their showcase provided more evidence that the star system in recruiting can be a bunch of hogwash in terms of projecting a prospect’s future.
Brooks had the best rating of that freshman quartet with three stars out of five, according to Rivals.com. The other three players received two-star labels, which, in recruiting, is like saying someone has a good personality.
Combined, those four freshmen received only one other BCS-level scholarship offer. One. Total. Brooks held an offer from Georgia Tech.
Jerry Kill’s staff deserves credit for discovering and developing undervalued talent that belongs in the Big Ten.
“It creates a bright future,” Huff said.
They desperately needed them in the short term, too, because the Gophers played a sloppy game that could’ve resulted in a worse outcome.
The Gophers managed 1 measly yard of offense in the third quarter, and their defense allowed 433 total yards for the game.
They also committed silly penalties, including one by senior Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who jumped offsides on a field goal that cost the Gophers four points after Illinois scored a touchdown on its second chance.
The second half felt like a bad loss lurking.
But their freshmen made big plays, winning plays, to script a different ending. Equally encouraging is that they bounced back from mistakes.
Brooks’ fumble in the second quarter led to an Illinois field goal. The coaching staff reminded him of ball security when he came to the sideline and then kept feeding him the ball.
Hardin misplayed a tackle attempt in the second quarter that allowed a 28-yard reception to the Gophers 7-yard line. But three plays later, Hardin broke up a pass in the end zone, limiting Illinois to a field goal.
Huff’s signature moment came late in the fourth quarter. Illinois had the ball at its own 41, needing only a field goal to take the lead.
On the sideline, Gophers coached yelled “dollar,” and Huff raced onto the field. Their “dollar” package puts the speedy linebacker in optimum pass-rushing situations.
Standing up at right defensive end, Huff sprinted past the left tackle and sacked quarterback Wes Lunt for an 11-yard loss, essentially a drive killer.
“His sack was a huge momentum changer, and it changed the ballgame around,” Claeys said.
Plays like that earn the trust of a coaching staff. Same thing on Still’s touchdown catch in the final seconds of the first half. With one shot to the end zone, they turned to Still.
“You’ve got to mature faster than the other freshmen,” Still said.
That maturity is growing with their freshmen, especially Brooks, who looks like a future star at tailback. He’s a tough, physical runner who also possesses breakaway speed. And his vision might be his best asset.
Brooks’ emergence as a featured back has become an important discovery for the team’s future. As we learned Saturday, his classmates are capable of pulling their weight, too.