Illinois built a 28-7 halftime lead and then held off a furious Minnesota rally for the big road win. Now possessing two straight Big 10 triumphs, the Illini gained more momentum in their improbable quest to finish with a 6-6 season record. Coach Ron Zook was extremely pleased with the effort.
"We're proud of this football team. We didn't do exactly what we wanted to do in the second half. But maybe that's a positive because you're gonna get stretched, and you have to have enough confidence to come back."
Illinois got off to a terrible start on the season, and some outsiders questioned whether the team had given up. After two straight wins, the true character of the team is emerging.
"We've had some tough times, and we haven't played the way we're capable of playing all the time," Zook understates. "But we haven't quit. That's a great tribute to our guys. I'm just so happy for our football team and our fans. They've stuck through it with us."
The Illini got off to a fast start. Quarterback Juice Williams completed five straight passes for 53 yards, including a 22 yard touchdown toss to Jeff Cumberland to complete an 80 yard drive on the opening possession.
It appeared the Illini would score again when defensive tackle Josh Brent stripped MarQueis Gray of the ball and recovered the fumble at the Minnesota 33 yard line. But one play after Williams ran 14 yards on a draw, he was swarmed by Gopher defenders and coughed up the ball. He was also injured on the play, spraining his ankle.
The Gophers gave it right back. Quarterback Adam Weber threw an ill-advised flat pass that freshman cornerback Terry Hawthorne diagnosed perfectly. He caught the ball in full stride, rambling 44 yards uncontested for the TD to give the Illini a 14-0 lead before the end of the first quarter.
With Williams unable to continue, redshirt freshman Jacob Charest was called on to save the game for the Illini. After a quick three-and-out, Illini fans were understandably nervous. And that nervousness became more acute when the Gophers grabbed momentum and drove 63 yards for a touchdown.
The Illini defense played great all day, and it came up big after another Illini three-and-out. A Whitney Mercilus sack and a Gopher penalty forced them back near their goal line. A poor punt gave the ball back to the Illini in great field position.
Charest settled down and began to make plays. He hit Arrelious Benn for 31 yards to move the ball near the goal line. Three plays later, freshman running back Justin Green scooted the final yard to reestablish a two touchdown lead.
Defensive end Clay Nurse got the first of his five tackles for loss by sacking Weber on Minnesota's next possession, forcing a punt. Charest drove the Illini 61 yards in 11 plays for another score before the half.
He hit four of five throws (the other was dropped), including 23 and 24 yard catches by Chris Duvalt and a 14 yarder to Jason Ford. Ford powered the final yard with one second remaining to make it 28-7 at halftime.
Minnesota made one of its patented comebacks in the second half despite Coach Zook's warning.
"I told our team at halftime, four of their five wins they have come from being down at halftime. They were expecting to come back."
The Gophers marched quickly and confidently downfield on the opening possession of the second half. They were picking up big chunks of yards until Nurse again sacked Weber on second and goal from the one yard line. Hawthorne broke up the third down pass, so Eric Ellestad kicked a 26 yard field goal.
The Illini came right back behind Charest. He completed a 23 yarder to Jeff Cumberland and hit Jack Ramsey for another 17 yards. On a big third down play, Charest's pass to Cumberland fell incomplete with a Gopher defender draped over the tight end's back. No penalty was called, so Matt Eller tried and missed a 45 yard field goal.
With Minnesota fans smelling another comeback win, Minnesota drove 72 yards on a possession extending into the fourth quarter to close the gap to 28-17. Nurse had two more big sacks, but Weber overcame that with a big 24 yard completion to tight end Nick Tow-Arnett on third and 24. He then hit fullback Jon Hoese for the ten yard TD.
Illinois failed to make first down on its next possession, and the Gophers marched 70 yards for another score. Brandon Green had two big catches in the drive, and Hoese bulled 11 yards in three carries to reduce the Illini lead to three points.
At this point, serendipity interceded. Last year, the Illini shanked two kickoffs out of bounds to give the Gophers good field position. This year, Nature reversed itself as Minnesota kicked two balls out of bounds, including one at this time.
Two Ford carries netted six yards before Charest hit quarterback/receiver Eddie McGee in the flat. McGee broke a tackle and sped 42 huge yards to regain momentum. Cumberland's powerful block helped spring him.
It was the key play of the game. Five plays later, Benn outmuscled a defender in the end zone for a reception from Charest to give the Illini a ten point lead with 5:10 to play.
The lead appeared safe when the Illini defense rose up to stop the next Gopher drive. However, Anthony Santella's punt was blocked and Ben Kuznia ran 32 yards after the recovery to reduce the spread to 35-32. A third kick out of bounds, this time on an onside kick, allowed the Illini the field position they needed to run out the clock and secure the victory.
Charest deserved a game ball on this day. Having only one brief game experience under his belt, he was given the assignment of leading the Illini to victory. He demonstrated poise in the pocket as the Gophers tried to blitz him on obvious passing downs. He frequently found hot receivers while being hit. His courage and precision gave the Illini a big lift all day.
While acknowledging it was a team effort, Zook offered special praise for Charest.
"I'm so proud of Jacob. We always talk about how you never know when your opportunity is gonna come. Sometimes we take the toughness of Juice for granted. I think, God willing, he'll be ready to go when it's time. But Jacob did a nice job, and we're real proud of him."
You never know a quarterback's true mettle until he is under fire in a pressure-packed game. Zook appreciated Charest's toughness.
"He really is. On Wednesday he threw a bad ball. I said, 'Jake, you are one play away from being a starter.' I didn't mean to say that, I wasn't thinking about it. But here he is, he's a starter, and he did a great job."
For the day, Charest hit 10 of 19 passes for 185 yards and his first college touchdown. He was never sacked despite constant pressure, and he was especially clutch on third and long when accuracy was most needed.
Ford had a better week in practice, so he got the start over Leshoure. He was a battering ram all day, churning for 82 yards in 20 carries and one touchdown. Leshoure added 25 yards in 10 carries. Benn and Ramsey each caught three balls, while Duvalt and Cumberland had two each.
The Illini racked up 351 total yards compared to 271 for Minnesota. Weber lost 64 yards on sacks as the Illini defensive line dominated against a huge but slow Gopher offensive line. Besides Nurse's five sacks, Brent was credited with three tackles for loss and both caused and recovered a fumble. Linebacker Ian Thomas led the Illini with 10 tackles and was inspired all day. Safety Garrett Edwards and linebacker Nate Bussey had strong games as well with 7 and 6 tackles respectively.
One week after Minnesota gained over 500 yards total offense, the Illini defense earned Zook's praise.
"I don't know how many tackles for losses we had, but it's the best we've had probably this year. They're a good football team obviously. Our guys came to play. I'm glad they're able to enjoy their hard work."
Tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Hubie Graham again were withheld from action, and receiver A.J. Jenkins was also out. But other than Williams, the rest of the Illini came out of the game healthy according to Zook.
"I think we're healthy except for Juice's ankle. It's not a knee or anything like that, so obviously with ankles we'll just have to wait and see. We've got the best doctors that there are, so they'll do anything they can to get him better."
If Williams can't go next week, the Illini now know they have a replacement who can lead them to victory. More than that, the Illini gained confidence. Each victory builds on what came before, giving the team and its fans renewed optimism for the rest of the season.
Zook will not allow talk of a possible five game winning streak and chance to qualify for a bowl game. Northwestern, upset conqueror of Iowa, travels to Champaign in the Illini's last Big 10 game of the season next week, and that is all he cares about.
"We're worried about one game. The most important game of our lives is next week. We'll go back home, I'm sure there'll be a good crowd there, and we're playing our rival. We've got to play well."