Minnesota Stuns Illini In Last Seconds

The Fighting Illini football team gave up a 10 point lead in the last 8 minutes of the game, falling to Minnesota 38-34 in Memorial Stadium Saturday. In a game of huge momentum shifts, the Gophers had it at the end to score with seconds left in the game. Thirteen Illini seniors have two more games to play, but they were unable to win their last home game.

Illinois players and coaches were disconsolate after losing to Minnesota. Head coach Ron Zook was concerned during the week as the Gophers are a dangerous team when they play with confidence.

"These are the kinds of games you worry about. They had nothing to lose. There were times when we played well, but in this league you'd better play every play.

You can't look at their record. They're Big 10 players, and they want to win and practice. We didn't deserve to win.

"We weren't ready to play, and that's my fault. I'm the head coach, and I didn't have them ready to play. That's something I'm gonna address."

Zook stresses constantly the need to play 60 full minutes and not let up at any time. Unfortunately, that did not occur on this day.

"There's gonna be days where the offense is hot and the defense is not, and there's gonna be days when the defense is hot and the offense is not. At times both played well, and at times neither one played well. And we had a major breakdown in special teams this week. It was a team effort, and we're all gonna suffer on this one."

The Illini defense, receiving plaudits earlier in the season, has now faltered two weeks in a row. Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning is at his wits end to know why, or how to prevent a continuation of a downward spiral.

"This game is very humbling. I think everybody can find some theories. We can make excuses and say they're tired or beat up or whatever. It's probably a combination of a lot of things. I can say I'm not doing a good job of motivating them. I think some of that's got to come from within.

"We were playing our best when Corey (Liuget) and Tavon (Wilson) and Martez (Wilson) and those guys were playing with high spirits and high motor. We had a little bit of swagger and had some confidence.

"I think going into the Michigan game we kind of had a sense of entitlement, and we went out and got our stinger broken off. We've got to understand that it's us and not them.

"I've tried to paint them visual pictures, read them scriptures, tell them stories and done everything besides grabbing them old-school and hollering and screaming at them. I don't know if that's the way we need to go at this time. We'll just try to continue to get them to pull up from within."

The defense didn't play badly the whole game, but it was either good or bad with little in between. With the Illini holding a precarious 34-31 lead with 2:44 left to play, the Gophers marched 80 yards for the winning score. On third and ten, Minnesota quarterback surprised by running a draw 29 yards.

A late hit after a short sideline completion gave the Gophers the ball at the Illini 31. Weber then hit running back Duane Bennett, who weaved his way through the Illini defense down to the six. Three plays later DeLeon Eskridge ran it over from the two for the winning score. The defense needed to step up but didn't.

The Illini scored on their first drive on a 28 yard pass from Nathan Scheelhaase to a wide open A.J. Jenkins. But Minnesota, playing with a wind gusting up to 30 miles an hour at its back, scored 17 unanswered points in the second quarter to give itself great confidence going into halftime.

The Illini came back with much more enthusiasm in the third quarter on a 14 yard touchdown run by Mikel Leshoure and a 17 yard TD pass from Scheelhaase to Spencer Harris. Minnesota and the Illini then traded touchdowns, the Illini scoring when Jason Ford broke several tackles to bang into the end zone from 4 yards out.

A 55 yard run to paydirt by Leshoure gave the Illini what appeared to be a comfortable 10 point lead. But just as fast the Gophers countered. Troy Stoudermire took the ensuing kickoff 90 yards to set up a four yard Eskridge TD.

After an exchange of punts Leshoure broke off a big run, but a downfield holding penalty pushed the ball back with the Illini still needing six yards in three plays to achieve a first down. Two runs lost yardage, and an incomplete pass gave Minnesota a chance. They took advantage to gain the victory.

Afterward A.J. Jenkins, who led the Illini receives with six catches for 137 yards, pulled no punches.

"We thought it would be a guaranteed win, but they surprised us. I guess we didn't take them as seriously as we should have.

"Last home game, so it was kind of emotional, seniors and all. This was a hard loss for us, and everybody thought we'd be bowl eligible after this game. We have to try again next week."

Tackle Jeff Allen, who apologized to senior linemen Randall Hunt and Ryan Palmer for failing to give them a win in their last home game, saw how lethargic play early gave Minnesota life.

"They didn't look like a one-win team. We came out and didn't stick it to them and gave them more momentum. They just kept playing harder and harder."

Scheelhaase, who wasn't as sharp as the last couple games, was 10 of 21 passing for 172 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 35 yards in 19 carries. He shared his thoughts on occasional offensive inefficiency.

"At times in the game, both the offense and defense played as well as we have all year. So I don't think it's a confidence issue. We just have to maintain the confidence throughout the game. I didn't feel like we were flat, I just felt like we didn't execute."

Liuget had six tackles including one tackle for loss and a shared sack. He tried hard to inspire the defense (and the fans) in the second half. He felt he had to do something.

"Our energy wasn't up. We weren't tackling or doing our assignments worth a darn. I decided to step up and get guys up in the third quarter. Then in the fourth quarter, we don't know what broke wrong."

Martez Wilson led the defense with 15 tackles. Justin Green contributed 10. They both had tackles for loss. Ian Thomas added 8 tackles, and Nate Bussey had seven plus a fumble recovery.

Leshoure, who is now over a thousand yards rushing for the season after gaining 141 yards in 18 carries, feels the Illini can bounce back.

"I think we're all right. We've lost some tough games these last two weeks, and things didn't go our way. But we still did some good things out there offensively and defensively, and there's nothing we can't fix. We have to come in with the mentality to work and not take anything for granted."

Illinois won the yardage battle 410-361, but Minnesota won the war. The next game is against Northwestern in Wrigley Field. The Wildcats upset Iowa Saturday. Zook knows the Illini now have their work cut out for them.

"This is a big one, and it's very important to our program. We get to play in an unbelievable place. If they care anything about it, they'll be ready to go."

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