MINNEAPOLIS - The University of Minnesota football team might be on the verge of something special this season. For now, they’re celebrating being 1-0 during “Illinois Championship Week.”
The Gophers got a historic day from the senior combination of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks in a 40-17 Homecoming win over Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium. Smith and Brooks combined for 322 rushing yards and two touchdowns as Minnesota ran for 332 of its 487 total yards in arguably its most complete game of the season.
Smith himself had 24 carries for 212 yards and a score. It was the most rushing yards by a Gopher running back in Big Ten play since Laurence Maroney in 2005. The Gophers are 5-0 for the first time since 2004.
“It’s nice to have Rodney and Shannon back, huh?” Fleck said during his roughly four-minute opening statement to reporters after the game. “They have matured and to see them have the success they had tonight, it was nice. It’s kind of like your two older children. It was so good to see them have the connection they had. They were hip to hip on the sideline, I’m so proud of where they’ve come as men. From where they were, what they’ve overcome and how they led this football team.”
The Gopher defense won’t say publicly they were motivated by getting embarrassed in a 55-31 loss at Illinois last year. But the numbers don’t lie. Last November, the Illini ran for 430 yards, five touchdowns and averaged 12.3 yards per carry.
On Saturday? Illinois didn’t score an offensive touchdown, managed only 91 rushing yards and passed for just 157 after Brandon Peters went out with an injury in the first half and didn’t return. Minnesota’s defense had three sacks, five tackles for a loss, an Antoine Winfield Jr. interception, forced a fumble and held Illinois to a field goal.
Reggie Corbin, one of the Big Ten’s top running backs, was limited to 14 carries for 70 yards.
“Just swarming to the ball, tackling. That’s one thing we preached all week. I touched on it on Tuesday, our tackling had to be better. It started in practice and it carried over to the game,” said linebacker Thomas Barber, who finished with three tackles.
The Gophers had to respond from adversity early, despite finishing strong. Tanner Morgan was trying to hit Rashod Bateman over the middle in the first quarter, but Dele Harding picked him off and ran it back 40 yards for a touchdown as Illinois took the early 7-0 lead.
Minnesota answered before the end of the first quarter. Winfield Jr. picked off Peters, and the Gophers turned it into three points on a 28-yard field goal from Michael Lantz.
Early in the second quarter, it was time for Johnson to ink another spot in the record books. Morgan hit him in a tight window for a 12-yard touchdown on a play where Johnson tipped it to himself before coming down with the catch for the score. The touchdown was set up by a 64-yard run from Smith as the Gophers ran for 196 yards in the first half.
It was Johnson’s 21st career touchdown, putting him past Gopher legend Eric Decker.
The Gophers were just getting started on offense. Brooks scored his first touchdown of the season from 21 yards out to give Minnesota a 16-7 lead. He finished the day with 16 carries for 111 yards and the score. Brooks looked like his old self again, about a year removed from his second season-ending knee injury last season against Indiana.
“It was exciting to see him go out and have a day. He’s been through a lot, probably more than everybody on this team so I was excited for him,” Smith said.
After the game, Fleck paused for a moment when asked about Brooks’ comeback. He lost his mother while working back from one of his two knee injuries.
“Most people in the world would fold. The one percent find a way to change their best, look at it as an opportunity to grow and become better and that’s where I’m so proud of Shannon,” Fleck said. “It’s not been fair, but life’s not fair, and he knows that. The faster you find out life’s not fair, the more joyful you’ll be. Heather taught me that. I’m so glad he’s embraced that.”
The Gophers took control early in the second half, led at first by Morgan. He hit a wide open Bateman for a 59-yard gain on the first play of the third quarter. Three plays later, Morgan hit Chris Autman-Bell for a 10-yard touchdown and 23-10 Gophers lead.
Five minutes later, Morgan hit Brevyn Spann-Ford on a 12-yard play for his first career catch and touchdown, giving Minnesota a 30-10 lead. Morgan finished the day 9-of-17 for 155 yards and three touchdowns. But he also had two turnovers that directly resulted in 14 Illinois points. Morgan also had six passes dropped by Gopher receivers.
It was an up-and-down day after setting a Big Ten record for completion percentage last week at Purdue. Winning is what matters, and Morgan is 9-2 as the Gophers’ starting quarterback.
“The guy threw for 95 percent last week and now everybody thinks that’s what he should be. There’s going to be some ups and downs, there’s going to be some good games, some tough games. But he’s tough, and he responded,” Fleck said.
Smith put the icing on a Homecoming victory with an 8-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter, putting the Gophers up 37-17.
Saturday’s win was Minnesota’s 700th as a football program. The Gophers are one of 28 in the country to hit that number. What matters to them as that they’re 1-0 after “Illinois Championship Week.” They’ll enjoy it for one night, and then move on.
The Gophers host Nebraska, who needed a last second field goal to beat Northwestern on Saturday, next week at TCF Bank Stadium.
“We celebrate in the locker room after the game, and that’s it. We are 1-0 in the Illinois week and that was our goal. Now it’s onto Nebraska, 0-0, and we know we have to attack each week as a new week and a chance to get better,” Smith said. “It’s a long season and in the Big Ten, you have to earn every win that you get.”