Gophers replay Gophers 40, Illinois 17

The recap

The Gophers have been waiting for their running game to click, and this past Saturday, it did. The rush totaled 332 yards, thanks to two senior running backs. Rodney Smith posted 211 yards and a touchdown while Shannon Brooks accumulated 111 and a score.

In a game of redemption, the defense also shined after a shaky performance at Purdue a week ago. Illinois’ offense scored only a field goal and couldn’t crack 100 yards on the ground. Of the Illini’s 17 third downs, they converted just five. “Just tackling, swarming the ball,” is how senior linebacker Thomas Barber described the defense’s improvement.

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• Tanner Morgan dips but still wins: Coming off one of his best games where he missed just one of his 22 passes, the quarterback gave one of his worst performances Saturday. He completed nine of 17 passes, threw a pick six and coughed up a fumble returned for a touchdown. That’s 14 of Illinois’ 17 point. But he still threw for three touchdowns, and the Gophers still won.

• Special teams still wavering: The Gophers’ special teams units have been volatile all year. It was the same against Illinois. From kickoffs going out of bounds to botched snaps on extra points, that area of the game hasn’t quite cleaned up its act.

• Kamal Martin still leads: The senior linebacker has been a difference-maker all season. Against Illinois, he posted a team-high seven tackles and forced two fumbles. Even though he’s missed two games this year from suspension and injury, he’s tied for second on the team with 26 tackles, tied for first with two interceptions and is first with his two forced fumbles.

Up next: vs. Nebraska

6:30 p.m. Saturday

TCF Bank Stadium (FS1)

The skinny: While many considered the Big Ten West wide open, Nebraska was a popular preseason choice for champion despite coach Scott Frost winning just four games in his first year last season. The Cornhuskers haven’t quite looked like winners so far, going 4-2, including 2-1 in the conference. Their two losses were an overtime debacle against Colorado and a full-on Ohio State beatdown of 48-7. Nebraska is coming off needing a last-second field goal to beat Northwestern 13-10.

Against the Gophers, Nebraska might be without two of its top players in quarterback Adrian Martinez and receiver JD Spielman, an Eden Prairie native, who left the Northwestern game early with lower-leg injuries. Martinez is the team’s passer and rusher, while Spielman is the top receiver. Frost told reporters after the game he didn’t know full details yet but neither injury was “too serious.”

Offense is Nebraska’s strong suit, as the team averages 435 total yards a game. But its defense allows 401.4. In Martinez’s absence, sophomore Noah Vedral played. Senior Mike Williams took Spielman’s place.