The roller-coaster ride that was the 2011 football season is over, and for the Gophers, there were a lot more valleys than peaks.
Saturday, however, offered a chance for the team to climb one final peak.
Minnesota often found itself on the losing end of blowouts, but the Gophers found out what it was like to win one of those contests Saturday.
Minnesota sent its seniors out on top with a lopsided 27-7 win over a hapless Illinois team that fired its head coach after the game.
Saturday was also Senior Day at TCF Bank Stadium. The seniors were honored before the game, ending tumultuous careers that have seen several key coaching changes.
“Coach called it the Senior Bowl, and that’s how we played tonight, like we were at a bowl game,” senior linebacker Gary Tinsley said. “It’s a wonderful feeling to go out like this.”
Head coach Jerry Kill said the group of seniors “set the tone for us going forward.”
Quarterback MarQueis Gray led the charge with 167 yards rushing and two touchdowns. He also added a score through the air.
Gray finished the season with 966 yards rushing, setting a new single-season rushing record for quarterbacks. Billy Cockerham set the previous mark of 831 in 1999.
“The offensive line was dominating up front,” Gray said. “They did a great job of opening up holes for us.”
Minnesota’s defense, led by its defensive line and linebackers, dominated Illinois all game long.
The Gophers sacked Illini quarterbacks five times and held Illinois to just 160 yards of offense.
Illinois didn’t get a first down until the final minute of a first half.
“That’s how defensive ball is supposed to be,” senior safety Kim Royston said. “It was a great feeling seeing our front seven have a great game like they did.”
Wet, windy conditions affected both offenses in the game’s early goings as the teams punted on every possession in the opening quarter.
Early in the second quarter, Minnesota defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman sacked Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase deep in Illinois territory and forced a fumble that the Gophers recovered.
Gray scored from 16 yards out on the next play to give Minnesota a 7-0 lead. Minutes later, he threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to tight end John Rabe.
“[Gray] made some awful good decisions today. He ran the ball, made good decisions,” Kill said. “He could be an awful good player. I’m certainly pleased with his progress.”
Minnesota tacked on two Jordan Wettstein field goals, including a 51-yard boot and held a 20-0 lead at halftime.
It was more of the same in the second half.
Gray scored again — from 14 yards this time — on the Gophers’ first possession of the third quarter.
Troy Pollard put Illinois on the board with a touchdown midway through the quarter, but the Illini never found the end zone again.
“We’ve grown, not only as a defense, but as a team since day one, until now,” Royston said. “The program is in great hands, and I think there’s great things to come.”
The win gives Kill a 3-9 record in his first season at Minnesota, and it’s the second-straight year the Gophers have finished with that record.
Part of the reason a three-win season seemed like a success from the players’ perspective Saturday is how far expectations have fallen.
Illinois squandered a 6-0 start to its season by losing the final six games.
As a result, Illini head coach Ron Zook was fired Sunday afternoon.
The coach’s fate had been a subject of speculation for the last few weeks. He was 34-51 in seven seasons. Zook spoke about Saturday’s loss after the game and was demonstratively demoralized.
“We didn’t have any offense, particularly in the first half. We turned the ball over, things we said we couldn’t do,” he said.
“We lost energy. It’s kind of the way it’s been the last four or five weeks.”
Meanwhile, the Gophers will channel their energy from Saturday into a long off-season in which progress will be vital to legitimately compete in the Big Ten.
Kill said that players will begin speed and strength work Monday.
UMN students have traveled to Florida colleges to collaborate with students on various projects.
When UMN students plan for a vacation, having trip cancellation travel insurance is a worthwhile commodity to check out.
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