Saturday’s chilly game was all about the freshmen for Minnesota.
The Gophers wiped away their four-game losing streak with a 32-23 victory over Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium, thanks to freshman running back Shannon Brooks’ 174 rushing yards and three touchdowns, as well as key contributions from freshmen Julian Huff, KiAnte Hardin and Rashad Still. The victory was the team’s first under new head coach Tracy Claeys.
Minnesota (5-6, 2-5 Big Ten) will be playing for bowl eligibility in its final game of the season against Wisconsin next Saturday.
“We’ve [had] some tough games, so for me, [winning my first game] is secondary,” Claeys said. “The good part is we need to win to keep our chances going for a bowl game, and [to] let them have a chance to celebrate in the locker room, it means a lot.”
The Gophers held a one-point lead late in the fourth quarter, but Illinois (5-6, 2-5 Big Ten) was driving.
Freshman linebacker Julian Huff was put in the game, though, and sacked redshirt junior quarterback Wes Lunt for an 11-yard loss on second down.
Minnesota forced a punt afterward, and Brooks clinched the game with a 75-yard touchdown run for his third score of the game.
“[Huff’s] sack was a huge momentum changer, and it changed the ballgame around,” Claeys said. “[The defense works] awfully hard, and it was good to see them make a play that could change the game.”
Brooks’ final touchdown put the Gophers up by seven. Claeys kept his offense on the field for a two point conversion, and redshirt junior quarterback Mitch Leidner was able
to run into the end zone to put Minnesota up nine with 1:25 remaining.
Claeys said the decision to go for two was an easy one.
“If [Illinois goes] down and [scores], they’re going to go for two points and beat you,” Claeys said. “We had an opportunity to lock it down.”
Illinois was also down just one point late in the first half after redshirt senior kicker Taylor Zalewski made his second field goal of the day.
The Gophers responded on their next possession, going on a 15-play drive to score with just seconds remaining in the half.
Leidner tried to score on a quarterback sneak but was stuffed. Minnesota was forced to take a timeout, but then freshman wide receiver Rashad Still caught a high pass in the corner of the end zone to put the Gophers up 21-13.
“It was a great catch. We knew we had eight seconds on the clock and needed to get a quick throw up,” Leidner said. “He did a good job to keep his feet in bounds, that’s for sure.”
The Gophers built a 14-10 lead earlier in the half with two rushing touchdowns from Brooks, but a fumble by the freshman set up Illinois’ second field goal.
“He’s too good of a player, and he will learn from it being a true freshman,” Claeys said. “He’s important to us now.”
The Gophers kept giving the ball to Brooks after the fumble, and he rewarded the team with his late 75-yard run to pull the team’s offense out of a rut.
Minnesota only gained one yard and possessed the ball for 3:33 in the third quarter.
The Gophers were still able to put up three points in the third, as a 60-yard kick return by freshman defensive back KiAnte Hardin set up a 46-yard field goal from redshirt sophomore kicker Ryan Santoso.
Hardin had 165 return yards in the game, and he and Brooks combined for 344 all-purpose yards in the game.
“We all work hard in practice, and definitely when we came up in the summer, studying the playbook and getting as many reps as we can,” Brooks said. “It shows and paid off today.”
Minnesota had a total of 255 running yards in the game, including a season-high 64 yards from Leidner.
Illinois put up 433 total yards in Saturday’s game, marking the third game in a row where Minnesota’s defense allowed more than 375 yards.
While injuries have weakened the team’s defense, Claeys said, he would still celebrate his first victory quietly before beginning to prepare for the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe against Wisconsin.
“My sister flew in here, and she promised me some homemade chicken and noodles tonight,” Claeys said. “We’ll watch the games and enjoy each other’s company and get back to work.”