Ibrahim's 4 TDs, strong defense carry Gophers past Illinois 41-14

Mohamed Ibrahim #24 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers runs the ball against the Illinois Fighting Illini in the first quarter of the game at Memorial Stadium on November 7, 2020 in Champaign, Illinois. ((Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images))

P.J. Fleck has preached since he arrived to Minnesota four years ago that failure is growth, and it’s about how one responds to adversity.

Through two games in a season affected in multiple ways by the COVID-19 pandemic, Fleck and the Gophers have already been through plenty of both. They opened the season with a 49-24 loss to Michigan that was never really competitive. Last week, a defense replacing seven starters gave up 675 total yards in a 45-44 overtime loss at Maryland.

Saturday? Mo Ibrahim ran for more than 200 yards and four touchdowns for the second straight game, and the defense, without its primary play-caller, played its best game as the Gophers pounded Illinois 41-14 for their first win of the season. Fleck said after the game part of his teaching this week included reading the children’s book “Everyone Poops” in a Friday night meeting.

“Poop can be used as fertilizer if you grow. In Minnesota, we’ve got lots of farms and the poop is actually manure. It can help with crops and fruit and vegetables. That’s what we talked about last night,” Fleck said. “It was a very unique team meeting, but I think we got the message across.”

Message received.

“Coach Fleck does a good job of pulling that message out of the book and spread it to all the team. We’ll apply it on the field and in our lives, we love it,” receiver Rashod Bateman said.

The Gophers rode Ibrahim, who finished with 30 carries for 224 yards and four touchdowns. Minnesota ran for 325 yards total on the night, as Ibrahim got help from Cam Wiley, Trey Potts and a physical offensive line.

Ibrahim ran for 7.5 yards per carry. He’s the first Big Ten player to have consecutive 200-yard rushing and four touchdown games since Larry Johnson in 2002. He’s also the first Big Ten player since Javon Ringer in 2008 to have nine rushing touchdowns through three games.

“I think he’s one of the most special backs in America. When you see him walking down the street, you wouldn’t think he’s a Big Ten running back,” Fleck said. He’s not the biggest, not the strongest, not the fastest, but he’s got incredible vision, like Superman."

Ibrahim credits his vision to extra film work in the off-season, when there couldn’t be any on-field workouts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He says he’s more patient in setting up blocks, and waiting for the holes to emerge.

“Some plays out there, you can actually see me be patient with an extra second, where last year I would’ve just put my head down and got three yards. Now I’m just waiting, setting blocks up, understanding that the O-line is going to get there and not get too fast off my reads,” Ibrahim said.

The Gophers built a 28-7 halftime lead with touchdowns from Potts, Bateman on a fade route from Tanner Morgan and Ibrahim scoring twice in short yardage. They also got help from their defense, which forced four Illinois punts and didn’t score until there was 8:09 left in the first half.

Minnesota limited Illinois to 287 total yards, 139 in the first half and sacked quarterback Coran Taylor four times. The Illini passed for just 106 yards, and punted eight times in the game. The Gophers came in having forced two punts all season, and allowed 675 yards to Maryland last week.

“The defense was flying around today and we really cleaned up our details this week. Guys were communicating, playing for each other, with each other. The results showed, and now we just have to continue to keep growing and moving forward. We really fought. We drew a line in the sand and it showed,” linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin said.

On Illinois’ first possession of the second half, they got the ball to Minnesota’s 9-yard line before being flagged for a personal foul. Then Taylor fumbled on a 23-yard loss, and on 4th-and-goal from the 48-yard line, Illinois had to punt.

Ibrahim’s fourth touchdown of the night, from four yards out, gave the Gophers a 41-14 lead with 8:27 remaining. A punishing ground game with a stout defense let the Gophers run away with their first win of the season.

“It’s definitely an elite feeling being able to go 1-0 in this Illinois season. I’m really proud of our team, the way that we played today and I’m extremely excited for our guys,” Morgan said.

Next up? Rival Iowa Friday night at TCF Bank Stadium for Floyd of Rosedale.