Minnesota 40, Illinois 17
CHAMPAIGN - Lovie Smith prioritizes turnover margin more than any other aspect of a football game. The Illinois offense must not have gotten the message as it fumbled away the Illini's chances at a Homecoming victory.
Minnesota, which clinched bowl eligibility, scored 17 points off three Illini unforced turnovers that handed the Gophers (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) the ball inside the Illini 20-yard line. Min
Jeff George Jr.'s second career start -- with Wes Lunt (back) and Chayce Crouch (shoulder) out again -- got off on the wrong foot. The redshirt freshman quarterback (16-for-34, 156 yards, one touchdown) fumbled the first snap of the game and Minnesota recovered at the Illini 9-yard line. It took the Gophers just one play, a Shannon Brooks nine-yard touchdown run. Later in the quarter, Darius Mosely muffed a punt, which Minnesota recovered at the Illini. On the next play, Rodney Smith ran in for a 20-yard touchdown.
Minnesota's started seven drives in Illinois territory and scored on five of them (four touchdowns and a field goal).
The Illini defense otherwise held Minnesota to 23 yards, the fewest amount they've allowed to an FBS team this season -- by a wide margin (Rutgers' 385 yards was their season-best heading into Saturday).
Rodney Smith led Minnesota with 100 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Leidner completed 10 of 19 passes for 112 yards.
Minnesota held the Illinois offense to 245 yards, the Illini's second worst total of the season (behind only their 172-yard output against Michigan last week). Reggie Corbin led the Illini with 83 rushing yards on 14 carries.
Adding injury to insult, the Illinois offense lost three playmakers.
Malik Turner left the game on a stretcher with 0:54 remaining in the first quarter. He took a big hit in the head from Minnesota safety Duke McGhee, who was ejected from the game for targeting on the hit. Turner left the field on a stretcher and a cart, wearing a neck brace. He was taken to the hospital for precautionary measures.
Freshman receiver Dominic Thieman caught a career-high four passes for 25 yards but left the game in the third quarter with a right leg injury. Sophomore running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn walked to the locker room in the fourth quarter with an apparent leg injury.
Illinois started six freshmen on defense: DT Jamal Milan, DT Kenyon Jackson, LB Jake Hansen, CB Frank Sumpter, FS Stanley Green and SS Patrick Nelson. Also, freshman Dele' Harding too over Julian Jones spot at strongside linebacker.
What it means
Illinois still shoots itself in the foot too much to pull of solid wins. Penalties hurt Illinois against Nebraska and Purdue. Turnovers killed Illinois on Saturday against Minnesota. Illinois doesn't have enough big-play ability on offense to make up for so many errors. After losing its top receiver (Mike Dudek) and its No. 2 running back (Dre Brown) to torn ACLs during the spring, the Illinois offense has lost its top two quarterbacks (Lunt and Crouch), its best receiver (Turner) and a top running back (Vaughn). The Illini could be headed for a 2-10 season in Lovie Smith's first at the helm.
What went right
The defense wasn't great, but it played well enough to win. The offense and special teams just put them in some terribly bad situations and short fields. With this offense, the defense must force more turnovers.
Illini defensive end Dawuane Smoot (eight tackles, one sack and one QBH) played like a high draft pick. He disruptive a lot of plays against the run and pass. Also, Milan and Jackson continue to improve and will likely provide a solid foundation on future front lines.
Chase McLaughlin made a career-long 53-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.
Dick Butkus -- who was announced as the first member of the inaugural member of the new Illini athletics Hall of Fame -- was honored on the field after the first quarter, along with linebacker legends Dana Howard and Kevin Hardy.
What went wrong
The Illinois offense is stuck in the mud. George Jr.'s struggles holding onto the football really hurt the team. He had moments in the middle of the game where he looked like a solid game manager, but his two fumbles resulted directly in 10 Minnesota points. Without Turner, the Illini passing attack struggled to stretch the field and could manage little in the passing game outside of some play-action passes. Turner is the Illini's leading receiver with 35 catches, 523 yards and four touchdowns. No other Illini is on pace to top 200 yards this season.
The Illini defense struggled to wrap up and tackle the physical Minnesota running backs, which often got a couple yards after contact. Minnesota started the game 0-for-3 on third downs, but converted on seven of their last 14 third downs.
The Illini special teams will have a bad film session. Mosely had a rough day as a punt returner. He mufffed his first return and then got caught in between on his second return. Instead of catching it in the air, he let it bounce. But instead of trying to let the ball bounce into the end zone, Mosely scooped it up and was tackled inside the five-yard line. Frain averaged 34.3 yards per punt. Even into a stiff wind, he needs to be better.
Illinois hosts Michigan State for a game that surprisingly might be the Illini's best remaining chance at a victory. The Spartans were ranked as high as No. 8 in the AP Poll following their September victory over Notre Dame, but they have lost six straight games and remain winless during Big Ten play. Mark Dantonio's rise in the Big Ten coincided with Michigan's demise. But with the Wolverines again among the nation's best, the Spartans' best days may be behind them. The Illini will try to make MSU's season even worse, though the Spartans certainly have the more talented team.