MINNEAPOLIS - The University of Minnesota football team entered the 2022 season with legitimate aspirations to compete for a Big Ten West title and play in Indianapolis.
Those dreams took a major hit after a 26-14 loss to Illinois on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, and the Gophers might be without starting quarterback Tanner Morgan for an extended time. He exited the game early in the fourth quarter after being punched in the helmet by Gabe Jacas while trying to scramble for a first down. Morgan walked off under his own power, but was eventually carted to the locker room with a towel over his head after going just 4-of-12 for 21 yards, one rushing touchdown and an interception. Jacas was trying to punch the football out on the play, but instead hit Morgan's helmet and no flags were thrown.
PJ Fleck told KFAN Radio after the loss Morgan was taken to a hospital and evaluated before the Gophers head home from Champaign.
"I’d be lying to you if I knew exactly what it was. Upper body, we don’t know the extent of it yet. We all kind of knew that one looked different," Fleck said.
The Gophers’ lone offensive bright spot Saturday was running back Mo Ibrahim, who had 15 carries for 127 yards and a touchdown. It was his 14th straight 100-yard game. Ibrahim missed the Gophers' loss to Purdue two weeks ago with an ankle injury, but looked like his old self against the Illini, averaging 8.5 yards per carry.
Minnesota drops to 4-2 on the season, 1-2 in the Big Ten and 0-9 against Bret Bielema. Their chances of staying in the Big Ten West conversation are all but over, with Purdue and Illinois now the front-runners.
Minnesota’s defense couldn’t get off the field, and couldn’t contain Chase Brown on Saturday. Brown had 41 carries for 180 yards, and caught a 40-yard touchdown pass on a wheel route from Tommy DeVito that gave the Illini an early 7-0 lead. The Gophers trailed 13-7 at the half.
Illinois collected 472 total yards, running for 220 against Minnesota’s No. 6-ranked rushing defense. The Illini were also 4-for-4 on fourth down conversions. They had four drives that were at least 14 plays, ran 86 offensive plays to Minnesota’s 42 and held the ball for 40 minutes, compared to just 20 for Minnesota. DeVito, playing after suffering an ankle injury last week, finished 25-of-32 for 250 yards and one score.
"Our eyes were in the wrong spot, we were a step behind, we didn’t tackle well. It was getting off the field, just being able to make a play. That’s how we usually win, they did that to us today," Fleck said.
Playing for the injured Morgan, Athan Kaliakmanis was 2-for-6 for 17 yards, and two interceptions. The Gophers managed just 180 total yards, only 38 through the air as they struggled to protect Morgan, and receivers dropped passes.
Minnesota briefly took a 14-13 lead after Quentin Redding returned the third quarter kickoff 92 yards, and Ibrahim scored from five yards out. Illinois scored 13 unanswered points to get the win. They took the lead for good after DeVito faked a hand-off to Brown, and walked into the end zone from five yards out for a 20-14 lead in the third quarter. The Illini also got 12 points off four made field goals from Fabrizio Pinton.
Life doesn’t get any easier for the Gophers, who head to Penn State next Saturday. The Nittany Lions lost 41-17 on Saturday at No. 5-ranked Michigan.