This isn't the Gophers defense that Illinois pushed around last year.
While the offense had their ups and downs, Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi and his defense shined, holding the Illinois offense to 3 points, winning by a score of 40-17.
“I thought our defense played outstanding," head coach P.J. Fleck said after the game. “The game plan they put together, I thought was tremendous.”
Illinois can only thank themselves for Minnesota's defensive success. After all, it was the 55-31 loss last year to Illinois that caused the Gophers to fire then defensive coordinator Robb Smith and replace him with Rossi. The Gophers are 8-1 since they gave Rossi the reigns of the defense.
With all the talk about the Gophers potent offense the last few weeks, they needed help from their defense until they could find their footing. The defense responded by only allowing a field goal for the game, as Illinois scored the rest of their points on an interception for a touchdown and a fumble return for a touchdown. Both were turnovers by quarterback Tanner Morgan.
With Minnesota's offense struggling, an interception by star safety Antoine Winfield Jr. gave them the boost that they needed with field position inside the Illinois 20-yard line.
"The ball was just overthrown and it came right to me. Hit me right in the chest and just made the play," Winfield said.
However, Minnesota would have a quick three-and-out and have to settle for a Michael Lantz 28-yard field goal.
With Illinois starting quarterback Brandon Peters leaving the game with a concussion in the second quarter, the Gopher defense smothered the Illini offense when backup quarterback redshirt freshman Matt Robinson came in the game.
"We felt like he was just tuck and run and we saw that after the first couple series," linebacker Thomas Barber said. "We made some adjustments at halftime, making sure to limit that and you can see in the second half it helped."
The Gopher offense finally found their footing at the beginning of the second half. Minnesota's first drive after halftime took a little over two minutes on four plays stretching 75 yards, finishing with a 10-yard touchdown to wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell.
After another quick defensive stop, Minnesota's offense quickly answered back again. In a drive that took just three minutes off the clock, redshirt freshman Brevyn Spann-Ford capped off a 65 yard drive with his first catch, which resulted in a 12-yard touchdown, extending the Gophers lead to 30-10.
With a big lead, Minnesota utilized their longest tenured players, running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, to ice the game. Smith finished the game with 24 carries for 211 yards rushing and a touchdown. The 211 rushing yards are a career high for the sixth-year senior. Brooks finished the game with 16 carries for 111 rushing yards and a touchdown.
“Rodney has been here 12 years and Shannon has been here 10 years,” Fleck said with a smile. "To see them have the success they had tonight, it was nice. I’m so proud of where they’ve come as men.”
Rossi's defense dominated the entire game. The defense allowed only 83 yards in the second half and zero points. They finished the game with three sacks and five tackles for loss. Although they didn't completely shut down Illinois running back Reggie Corbin, they did hold him to only 4.9 yards per rush, when he came into the game averaging 7.1.
"I thought we were able to tackle well, swarm better, get around the ball as a defense and play team defense," Fleck said.
The Gophers will need their defense to shine again next week. Minnesota takes on Nebraska and their potent offense led by quarterback Adrian Martinez at home on Saturday, Oct. 12.