Gophers: Big opportunity slips away in 27-26 loss to Illinois

Xavier Scott #14 of the Illinois Fighting Illini breaks up a pass intended for Corey Crooms Jr. #4 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the second half at Huntington Bank Stadium on November 04, 2023 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Fighting Illini defea ((Photo by David Berding/Getty Images))

The University of Minnesota football team can’t find a way to beat Bret Bielema, and add Saturday’s 27-26 loss to Illinois at Huntington Bank Stadium to the list of massive disappointments.

The Gophers had a 26-21 lead with 5:53 to play after Athan Kaliakmanis hit Daniel Jackson for a 31-yard touchdown. Minnesota then forced Illini quarterback Luke Altmyer out of the game with an injury after a Danny Striggow strip sack and fumble. If the Gophers recover that fumble, they win the game. But Illinois got it, and took advantage of its last chance.

John Paddock, the Illini’s back-up quarterback, entered and went 3-for-3 for 85 yards, including a 46-yard game-winning touchdown to Isaiah Williams with 50 seconds to play. Williams finished the day with 13 catches for 131 yards and two touchdowns, and somehow got behind the Minnesota defense with the game on the line. Altmyer got them to that point by going 24-of-31 for 212 yards and three touchdowns.

"When you’re in a conference game, especially in the West against a really good football team, you can’t make mistakes. I thought we played really clean football for a long time, but then there’s some catastrophic things that happened and in a game like this it gets magnified," Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said after the loss. "Whatever happens in November, good or bad, gets magnified."

On the play, linebacker Cody Lindenberg was initially in coverage. Williams got behind him, then beat both Aidan Gousby and Tyler Nubin, who earlier in the quarter tied a program record with his 12th career interception.

But with the game on the line, a catastrophic mistake leads to a Minnesota loss.

"Just a miscommunication. That was something that happened multiple times in the game. That’s not us when we’re not communicating and we’re not at our best. You guys can see that. Miscommunication," Nubin said.

"Stuff like that is what leads to points. That’s on everyone, not just one guy. When you make mistakes to good teams like that, those teams are going to capitalize on them," Lindenberg said.

The Gophers fall to 5-4 on the season, 3-3 in the Big Ten and don’t take advantage of a massive opportunity to stay atop the West division with three games left. Nebraska lost to Michigan State, and Wisconsin lost to Indiana. Iowa is atop the West after beating Northwestern 10-7.

Minnesota is now 0-10 all-time against Bielema, the last three coming to Illinois. Bielema won seven straight against the Gophers as the head coach of the Badgers. It's also the second time Minnesota hasn't been able to hold a fourth-quarter lead this season. The Gophers had a 21-point lead at Northwestern in the fourth quarter before losing in overtime.

Kaliakmanis finished 11-of-22 for 167 yards and three touchdowns. His first score went to Elijah Spencer from 15 yards out in the first quarter. The second went to Brevyn Spann-Ford, which tied the game 14-14 in the second quarter. Spann-Ford finished with three catches for 58 yards. The Gophers led 17-14 at half after settling for a late field goal.

Minnesota’s defense forced a turnover to start the third quarter on a Jah Joyner sack fumble that Chris Collins recovered, but only managed a field goal out of it. Illinois answered as Altmyer hit Kaden Feagin from 54 yards out down the sideline to take a 21-20 lead early in the third quarter. Nubin was there for the tackle, but took a bad angle and missed.

The Gophers got the go-ahead touchdown with less than six minutes to play after Kaliakmanis hit Jackson. That was immediately after Lindenberg forced a Williams fumble that Justin Walley recovered.

The lead didn’t last. Minnesota’s defense forced three turnovers and had five sacks, but gave up the back-breaking touchdown to Williams from a back-up quarterback with the game on the line. The Illini had 371 total yards, and were 9-of-17 on third down.

Minnesota had plenty of mistakes in the loss. Sean Tyler fumbled the opening kickoff, which Illinois turned into a touchdown. Kaliakmanis missed an open Nick Kallerup in the fourth quarter for what could’ve been a first down and let the clock drain. Corey Crooms dropped what should’ve been a touchdown. The Gophers could’ve ended it with Illinois facing a 4th-and-11 with a minute to play, but Paddock hit Williams for 22 yards.

"Just gotta be able to execute and put the game away. Great teams put games away. You see great teams in the past and great teams now, they’re able to put the game away with their execution and their details and their playmakers," defensive lineman Jalen Logan-Redding said.

The Gophers managed just 260 total yards, 12 in the third quarter. Minnesota heads to Purdue next Saturday, with their Big Ten West hopes all but gone.

"I’ve said all year, everything has been ‘this close’ with this football team. I was told a long time ago close doesn’t get it done," Fleck said. "It’s that close, those are the margins for error and when you need to go make those plays and be in those positions and go end the game, you’ve got to be able to go do that."