Minnesota notes, grades: Dazzling, dauntless defense dominates in road win over No. 20 Golden Gophers

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Photo Courtesy of Illinois Athletics

The Illinois defense surrounds Minnesota running back Ky Thomas in the first half at Huntington Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. The Illini defense dominated from start to finish, playing a big part in the team’s 14-6 upset over the No. 20 Golden Gophers.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

Just when it looked like they were out of magic, the Illini surprised the world again today with a 14-6 upset victory over Minnesota. Minnesota was heavily favored heading into the game, but it certainly didn’t look like it when Illinois got out to a quick 14-0 lead behind rushing dominance from Chase Brown and a packed offensive line. 

Oddly enough, it feels like this was the first Illini game this season where they looked like the better team in all phases of the game from start to finish. Brandon Peters was good, Brown and Josh McCray were even better, the defense was excellent and the special teams unit was phenomenal as usual.

Illinois (finally) has an offensive identity

It’s no secret that Illinois was going to be a team focused on the running game this season, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted just how focused it would be. Against Minnesota, Illinois had 10 passing attempts to 48 rushes, which gives more than a subtle indication as to where head coach Bret Bielema thinks the Illini are strong. 

The results speak for themselves, too, as every game Illinois has won this season—including both of its upsets over Penn State and Minnesota—has coincided with a strong day on the ground. Against Wisconsin, Illinois’ most lopsided loss of the season, Bielema almost entirely eschewed the ground game in the face of the Badgers’ vaunted run defense in favor of passing the ball 34 times. We’re now at a point where Bielema has had a chance to see what works and what doesn’t work, and moving forward it seems that running efficacy will be a clear bellwether for this team’s performance. 

That doesn’t mean the passing game is nonexistent. Peters had nine passing attempts and made the absolute most of them, going 7/9 for 80 yards and a touchdown. When the Golden Gophers forced Peters to throw, he answered.

Penalties are still a problem

If there is one thing to nitpick at from this win, it would be the amount of penalties Illinois committed. Last week, Bielema stepped up to the podium in the press room and argued that the three penalties the Illini incurred were why they lost. This week, Illinois had seven penalties for 72 yards. At multiple points, defensive miscues kept Minnesota within striking distance until the end of the game.

Offense: B

It’d be pretty easy to be pessimistic about an offense that put up two touchdowns the entire game, but I think it needs to be taken in context. Once the Illini found themselves up 14-0 early in the second quarter, the game plan seemed to shift toward preserving the lead by almost exclusively running the ball instead of taking risks. Against most other teams, taking the foot off the gas wouldn’t have made much sense, but Minnesota’s offense is centralized on the running game, making it hard for them to score quickly if Illinois can churn the clock by methodically running on offense. 

If Minnesota found a way to score on its last drive and converted the two-point conversion to send the game to overtime, this would be an entirely different discussion. Fortunately, we don’t live in a world of hypotheticals and know Kerby Joseph came up with the clutch interception to seal the game. It would have been great to see the Illini run up the score — that’s why they didn’t get an A — but a win is a win, regardless of margin.

Defense: A+

Where do I start? Everything about Illinois’ defensive effort today was phenomenal. Ryan Walters’ game plan was clearly to take the option of running away from Minnesota from right out of the gate, and it worked to perfection. On the first drive of the game, it looked like Minnesota might have been the team inflicting its will on Illinois, gaining a passing and running first down on its first two plays. The feeling was short lived, however, with Tarique Barnes coming up with an interception a couple plays later. 

The incessant pressure from the Illini defense never stopped, ending the day with six sacks and two interceptions. After a shaky first few weeks of the season, the defense has seemingly gotten better every week. Every button Walters pressed today worked, giving the Illini their most complete defensive performance of the season. 

Special teams: A

Blake Hayes remains one of the best punters in the country. He had a crucial punt that placed the ball on the Minnesota 2-yard line to start the Gophers’ final possession with 1:20 remaining in the fourth quarter. If they’re further up the field, Tanner Morgan’s 36-yard pass to Dylan Wright gets a lot more concerning. Instead, Minnesota didn’t even get to midfield before Joseph sealed the game with his interception.

McCourt went 2/2 on extra point attempts on the day, too. 

 

@WesHollenberg

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