Breaking down the tape from the Gophers' victory over Illinois
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
The Gophers entered Saturday's match-up at Illinois with their best remaining chance at becoming bowl eligible up for grabs.
And they left satisfied, having ensured that their season won't end in November for the first time since 2009.
After back-to-back three-win seasons, the Gophers snared bowl eligibility with a no-frills 17-3 victory at Illinois. Coach Jerry Kill's squad reached the milestone behind a fierce defensive effort and a just enough offense to keep the sputtering Illini winless in the Big Ten.
The following is a breakdown of the Gophers' sixth win, and first Big Ten road victory of Kill's tenure, with input from a conversation Kill had with beat reporters Sunday.
Freshman Philip Nelson, in his fourth career start, wasn't asked to do much with his arm. It became evident by the Gophers' second drive that they intended on hammering Illinois' porous defensive line with a relentless, and successful, run game. They kept the ball on the ground on 55 of their 66 offensive plays. This left Nelson with only 15 passing attempts to eight different receivers and 78 yards to show for it -- the lowest total of his short career.. Erratic early on, Nelson battled through a rough opening 3-of-8 stretch -- three overthrows - before connecting on five of his final six throws. The Gophers' initial drive stalled seven plays in near midfield after Nelson sailed consecutive throws over the hands of WR MarQueis Gray. After a dump pass to Mike Henry near the end of the first quarter, Nelson didn't notch another completion until seven minutes into the third quarter, though he only had three attempts in that span. OC Matt Limegrover kept the long pass plays to a minimum. The majority of Nelson's attempts were short, quick passes. He had five throws that were delivered at or near the line of scrimmage. A 16-yard line drive throw to WR Isaac Fruechte in the fourth quarter stood as his longest completion of the day. While Nelson wasn't noteworthy in the passing game, the success of his tailbacks took the burden off him. The Gophers were able to release Nelson of his tendency to try to create too much on his own when the offense isn't producing -- a key step forward for the developing QB. Nelson worked well under the offensive parameters Limegrover had put in place, and efficiently led the offense in the second half. Nelson was selective with his decisions of when to run, carrying the ball 12 times for 24 yards - a total brought down from 42 yards largely due to a pair of sacks.
Sophomore TB Donnell Kirkwood didn't relent in the most impressive one-game showcase of his career. Kirkwood's driving, physical style overwhelmed the Illini, wearing the D-line and LB corps down until he had a career-high 152 yards, tackled for a loss (one-yard) only once on 28 carries. Kirkwood was patient in waiting for his blocks to line-up and bullied his way through the middle when the openings were there. Illinois could never adjust. He silenced a streak of 101 carries without a touchdown when he plowed into the endzone in the third quarter to put the Gophers out to a 10-3 lead. He added an insurance touchdown late in the fourth quarter on a scamper up the middle, relatively untouched. Kirkwood is now 180 yards (820) shy of becoming the Gophers' first 1,000-yard rusher since Amir Pinnix did so in 2006 (1,272 yards). Though Kirkwood was at the forefront of the Gophers' rushing success on Saturday, they received a solid contribution from freshman Rodrick Williams Jr. Used to complement Kirkwood, Williams unleashed for 55 yards on 10 carries. As the game progressed, the Gophers relied more and more on a power I-formation, often using FB Mike Henry with either Kirkwood or Williams. The Gophers went with the formation on 29 of their 50 rush attempts - 19 of which came in the second half - in large part due to what Illinois' defense was showing them.
"In the second half we made a decision as a staff that all the blitzing and all stuff they were doing, it was hard to protect," Kill said. "They were doing some wild stuff on defense. We said, 'Hey, let's line up and just go flat downhill, get them out of the gaps and see what we can do.'"
The Gophers got by without A.J. Barker and Derrick Engel, the pair Kill called "arguably our best two best receivers." The receiving corps didn't have to do much in terms of reeling in passes, but when they were called upon the results were fairly positive. Isaac Fruechte, who in the last two weeks had missed on several makeable catches, rallied with a strong performance. He brought in all three of the passes sent his way, good for 40 of the Gophers' 78 receiving yards. On a play early in first quarter, Fruechte nabbed a ball near the right sideline, able to make the catch and keep his feet in-bounds with a defender right on him. It was the type of catch he failed to haul in at key times a week ago against Michigan. But his highlight reception came in the fourth quarter when Nelson zipped a throw to him, despite the receiver being closely flanked by three defenders. The pass came in behind Fruechte, but he made up for it by reaching back to grab it among a three pairs of hands for a 16-yard gain. The Gophers were facing 3rd and 14 at Illinois' 29-yard line in the third quarter and on the cusp of letting yet another drive fizzle out. An unlikely source helped to avoid that fate. Senior Brandon Green, whose season has been tempered by chronic knee problems, ran a slant route to the middle of the field and made a leaping catch inches short of the first down. Four plays after the Gophers converted on 4th and inches, Kirkwood capped the drive with the eventual game-winning touchdown.
"The best thing we did all day was to get the old veteran in at the inside receiver spot," Kill said. "Brandon Green made a critical, critical catch in that game. Sometimes you have to go back to the old veterans, even though they're beat up a bit."
Freshman K.J. Maye was active in the first half as the Gophers' inside/motion receiver, but in the third quarter he was knocked out for the rest of the game after taking a blow to the chest while trying to make a catch off a crossing route to the middle of the field. Sophomore Marcus Jones handled Maye's responsibilities for the remainder of the game. WR MarQueis Gray wasn't the anchor at receiver that it was thought pre-game that he would have to be with Barker and Engel injured. With the Gophers sporting a run-first mentality, Gray didn't factor in as much in the play calling. He was in on only 21 of 66 offensive plays. He was targeted a co-team high three times -- twice on the Gophers' first drive. Gray reeled in one of those for five yards.
TEs John Rabe, Drew Goodger and Lincoln Plsek joined in with the offensive line to provide critical run blocking support. With the Gophers in an I-formation for a large portion of the game, all three were being used frequently to strengthen the edges of the line. Plsek has given credence to the coaching staff's decision to remove his redshirt six games in, as the freshman has gelled quickly in the Gophers' blocking scheme. On Kirkwood's longest run (38-yards), Plsek made a heads-up read to catch an Illinois CB, who had blitzed in off the edge, and set a block that opened a large gap between himself and RT Josh Campion. The Gophers didn't have much use for their TEs in the passing game. Goodger was the lone TE targeted by Nelson, missing on a low throw near the left edge.
Injuries have been a weekly hindrance for the O-line, keeping the unit's lineup in a state of flux. The injury woes reached a new low on Saturday, but the line impressively held on in one of its best overall games of the season. The Gophers were already minus two, with starters Ed Olson (foot) and Tommy Olson (ankle) both unable to play. By the fourth quarter the Gophers were down to their last option at C. Starter Jon Christenson had gone out in the first quarter with a high ankle, leaving RS junior Zach Mottla to fill in. But Mottla suffered a severe, season-ending left leg injury in the fourth quarter. That left the Gophers scrambling. RS Zac Epping, who began the game at LG, was rushed over to C, where he had started four games this year. RS freshman Joe Bjorklund was quickly brought in at LG. Despite the abrupt changes, the line didn't falter in the four minutes that remained. The Gophers were able to run for 27 yards and a touchdown in that stretch, effectively draining the clock and Illinois' chances at a rally.
"Going through three centers in a football game and winning the game, that's unheard of," Kill said. "That's a credit to (OC and O-line coach) Limegrover for making sure we've been snapping all three of those guys. That's more amazing to me than anything, to go through three centers in one game."
It wasn't just the final four minutes. The line was solid throughout the game in spite of two sacks allowed and a scattering of hits to Nelson. The unit was clearly outmuscling the Illini D-line, moving defenders almost at will to allow Kirkwood, Williams and Nelson to break through to the defense's second layer. The Gophers finished the game with Marek Lenkiewicz at LT, Bjorklund at LG, Epping in the middle and RG Caleb Bak and RG Josh Campion on the other side. That is the way the line will likely look next week if Ed Olson continues to be slow to recover. The Gophers had hoped he would be healthy enough to log around 10-15 snaps, but opted instead to hold him out. Like his brother, Tommy Olson has been practicing with the team, but hasn't fully recovered from a high ankle sprain suffered six weeks ago. With Mottla lost for the year and Christenson's status unknown, the Gophers are facing a major issue regarding who will be the new backup at C. Outside of Epping, the only two players that have taken practice snaps at C are either sitting out the year because of transfer regulations or being redshirted -- sophomore Brian Bobek and freshman Isaac Hayes. Kill insisted he would not burn a redshirt at this point in the season. This means someone on the line will have to rapidly learn a new position this week. "We're going to have to teach somebody," Kill said. "That's a shame, but that's what we're going to have to do."
Illinois may have one of the nation's worst offenses, but the Gophers' defense still deserves hearty praise for it's showing on Saturday. A first quarter field goal stood as Illinois' only points. It was the fewest points the Gophers have allowed against a Big Ten opponent in eight seasons. In past weeks, the defense had come up with an array of big stops early on, but wore down in the second half when the offense failed to provide scoring support. But even with Nelson and offense slow to get going, the "U" defense dominated Illinois from start to finish. Following the Gophers' goal line stand on Illinois' first possession, the Illini's only other trip into the redzone came with less than a minute left and the game out of reach. Illinois' offensive line looked flimsy, allowing the Gophers to berate QB Nathan Scheelhaase with pressure all afternoon. The D-line swarmed in on him consistently enough to prevent Scheelhaase from ever feeling comfortable in the pocket. Senior DE D.L. Wilhite tied Nebraska's Eric Martin for the Big Ten sacks lead (7.5) when he rolled by unsuspecting TB to bring down Scheelhaase in the second quarter. DE Alex Keith combined with S Brock Vereen a quarter later for the Gophers' second sack. Aided by the LB corps, the line clogged Illinois' running lanes up the middle. Of Illinois' 36 rushes, 16 of those went for two yards, including six that went for losses and five others that stalled at the line of scrimmage. DT Roland Johnson, who finished fourth on the team in tackles (3 - solo, 4 - assisted), recovered the Gophers' first fumble in Big Ten play after Scheelhaase couldn't handle a snap in the second quarter.
Apart from Illinois' first drive, the "U" LBs were much improved from a week ago when poor tackling and wrong fits resurfaced against Michigan. That goes for the entire defense, but the upgraded play was felt strongest at LB, which has been the defense's most inconsistent position group. DC Tracy Claeys concentrated much of the efforts of the LBs on stopping the run, and it showed. The Gophers held Illinois 101 rushing yards -- the lowest total they have allowed in six Big Ten games. Illinois was prevented from busting off many large gains - the Gophers' Achilles heel this season. Illinois had just two runs longer than nine yards (11 and 16).OLB Aaron Hill, despite leaving the game twice because of an injury, led the Gophers in tackles with 10 (7- solo, 3 - assisted). He combined with fellow starting LBs Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper for 40% of the Gophers' 66 total tackles (27-of-66). Rallis' made a crucial play late in the fourth quarter when he pooped the ball out of Scheelhaase's hands on a sneak up the middle. S Derrick Wells grabbed the fumble to snuff out Illinois' last opportunity to tie the game.
"We tackled much better, from the secondary to the linebackers," Kill said. "We tackled well and had better angles and kept better leverage on the ball, didn't allow him all day to run around, made him step up and do it."
Saturday was the first time this season the secondary accounted for less than 24 total tackles, posting a noteworthy low of 15. That is an example of not only how well the defense's front lines played, but also the secondary's ability to prevent Illinois from getting going downfield through the air. The Illini did pass for 175 yards, but their 15 completions were spread out and did little to derail the defense. The secondary was exposed in the first quarter when Illinois caught the unit cheating inside, expecting a run. Instead, the Illini ran a flea flicker, like Iowa did against the Gophers in their Big Ten opener that went for 49 yards. But Illinois struggled to find big openings from that point forward. S Derrick Wells still had his right leg wrapped, but he was back to regular amount of playing time after three weeks of being limited, in on 42 of 61 defensive plays. He had two tackles to go with his fumble recovery in the fourth quarter.
P Christian Eldred and K Jordan Wettstein had to compete with blustery winds of 25 MPH. When punting into the wind, Eldred was keeping the ball low and getting it out quickly. Four of his six punts went against the head wind. He still posted a respectable 41 yard average, allowing only one return. A career-long 63-yard punt with the wind at his back helped level his overall average 43.3 yards. Wettstein attempted one field goal -- a successful game-tying 20-yard chip shot in the second quarter. Wettstein ran into trouble on a kickoff at the end of the second quarter. His 62-yard kick zipped downfield without much lift, giving the Gophers little time to set up. Illinois' Ryan Lankford returned it 43 yards until Wettstein tackled him. Luckily for Wettstein and the Gophers, Illinois' drive ended five plays later.