Minnesota (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten) was led by running backs Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III. Maroney carried the ball 22 times for 179 yards and two touchdowns, while Barber III dashed for 129 yards on 24 carries.
Gophers QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq completed 12 of 15 passes for 237 yards and three touchdowns. Abdul-Khaliq connected on an 80-yard touchdown to Aaron Hosack, a 21-yard heave to Jared Ellerson and a 1-yard pass to Jarod Posthumus. The Golden Gophers gave their coach, Glen Mason, his 100th career Division 1 victory. Penn State's Joe Paterno is the only other active Big Ten coach to record 100 wins.
The Illinois (1-8, 0-5) offense started out slow under the guide of QB Chris Pazan, so Turner replaced the redshirt freshman with senior Dustin Ward. The second-quarter switch seemed to fire up the Illini for the first time in weeks. With Ward at the helm, the Illini went on an 80-yard scoring drive, culminating with a 4-yard touchdown pass to fullback Carey Davis. Kicker John Gockman's extra-point narrowed the Minnesota lead to 17-7.
The Illinois defense held the Gophers scoreless on two consecutive drives and the offense looked like it was going to close the gap even more, when disaster once again struck and rattled the Illini confidence.
Ward captained an Illini two-minute drill and had the ball on the Minnesota 10-yard line, looking to punch it in for seven points. Ward thought he had WR Kelvin Hayden in the back of the endzone, but Hayden slipped and Gophers cornerback Justin Isom intercepted Ward's pass for a touchback with only 20 seconds left until the break.
Illinois had another chance in the third quarter to get with in single digits of the Gophers. After Minnesota improved their lead to 23-7, Ward and the offense took over on their own 10-yard line and proceeded to march down the field. On third and nine at the Gophers 10, Ward connected with WR Mark Kornfeld on what the Illini faithful thought was a touchdown pass. But, the officials ruled that Kornfeld had voluntarily ran out of bounds and then came back in and was charged with illegal touching. Illinois had to settle for a 27-yard field goal from Gockman and the Gophers escaped the drive with a 23-10 lead.
The offensive numbers for the Illini looked a little stronger this week, but the result was the same. Ward completed 17 of 32 passes for 221 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. Pierre Thomas was the leading rusher for Illinois with 15 carries for 71 yards. Hayden had three catches for 93 yards and was the leading receiver for the Illini.
Illinois' seventh straight loss wasn't the most painful problem for Turner. The Illini sideline looked like a hospital as Hayden, Thomas and WR Lonnie Hurst all left the game with injuries. In the post game press conference, Coach Turner diagnosed the wide receivers with high ankle sprains and Thomas with a contusion on his leg.
Turner knows that next week against Iowa, Illinois could have more players in street clothes than in uniform.
"We have to keep positive and keep going. If they aren't in there, we'll have to figure out something, and we will come and fight like we always do."
Maroney's performance was an extra-large pill for the Illini to swallow, because the St. Louis native was a recruiting target of Turner and the Illinois coaching staff.
"Maroney visited here and we recruited him very hard, because he is a very good player. We would have liked for him to commit early, but we didn't stop recruiting him because he didn't commit early. Ever since he has entered the lineup for Minnesota he has done a great job."
Things get tougher before they get easier for the Illini. Coach Turner and company head across the border to Iowa City and take on the Hawkeyes next Saturday. A depleted Illinois squad and a physical Iowa team could make for a long day for the orange and blue faithful.