For the third consecutive game, Gophers sophomore running back Mohamed Ibrahim warmed up in full pads, only to not play.
Ahead of the Georgia Southern game in Week 3, Ibrahim endured a noncontact leg injury in practice. He was supposed to return after the bye week for the Gophers’ game at Purdue, but he just checked into the game briefly without making a carry. Again ahead of Illinois on Saturday, Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said Ibrahim seemed likely to return.
But instead, seniors Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks led the running game to its best performance all season.
“I thought we’d have him back by now,” Fleck said of Ibrahim. “We’re getting closer. I hope to have him back next week, but he’s day-to-day, and I want to make sure he feels really good.”
Cornerback Benjamin St-Juste played his best game so far at Purdue a week ago, and he followed it up with his first career start against Illinois.
The Michigan transfer started in place of Kiondre Thomas, who struggled against Purdue. St-Juste posted five tackles, including one for a loss, plus two pass breakups against Illinois.
“Ben has been doing a great job,” sophomore safety Antoine Winfield Jr. said. “He’s made a huge impact on the DBs on our side. … I hope he continues to do that.”
Fleck talked last week about what he likes in St-Juste.
“We see length,” Fleck said. “… He can run. He’s long. He made some really good plays. He’s just got to continue to get better every single day at everything.”
The Gophers have had bad luck — or good luck, maybe — when it comes to opposing quarterbacks this season. They faced a first-time player in the season opener against South Dakota State, a new starter at Fresno State and the backup against Georgia Southern. Then at Purdue, starting quarterback Elijah Sindelar came back from a concussion but didn’t even last a half before a sack from Gophers senior defensive end Tai’yon Devers potentially ended his season with a broken clavicle.
In the second quarter Saturday, Brandon Peters, the Illini quarterback who transferred from Michigan, left the game after a clobbering from Winfield and junior defensive tackle Keonte Schad.
Illinois freshman backup Matt Robinson checked in for Peters but struggled. He took three sacks and went 15-for-29 for 125 yards and no touchdowns.
It could be a similar story next week when Nebraska comes to TCF Bank Stadium. Cornhuskers sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez was injured against Northwestern on Saturday.
The Gophers haven’t used their tight ends for much more than blocking. But freshman Brevyn Spann-Ford took that unit in a new direction, catching a 12-yard score for his first career touchdown. Sophomore Jake Paulson starts at tight end for the Gophers, with junior Ko Kieft as the No. 2. Fleck has said Spann-Ford needs to improve his blocking for the run game to gain more playing time, but his pass-catching is a strong suit.
Gophers right tackle Daniel Faalele left the game in the second half and headed to the locker room with an apparent injury. Fleck said he was “dinged up” and so decided to pull him, but all indications are he’ll be OK.
In the 6-9, 400-pound sophomore’s absence, sophomore Blaise Andries slid to right tackle. Curtis Dunlap Jr. stayed at right guard, John Michael Schmitz at center, Conner Olson at left guard and Sam Schlueter at left tackle.