The Minnesota Golden Gophers were able to get their third consecutive Big Ten victory of the season on Saturday by heading down into Champaign and delivering a dominating performance for the 40-17 win.
Here are five takeaways from this afternoon's performance.
1) Minnesota able to take advantage of turnovers
The Illinois Fighting Illini turned the ball over three times on the day (not counting turnover on downs), and Minnesota was able to turn that into 17 points. Minnesota was also able to capitalize on great field position all day as their average starting field position was their own 48 yard line, while Illinois' was on their own 22. The first play of the game for Illinois' offense was a fumbled snap and a very athletic play from Scott Ekpe in recovering that fumble with one hand on a defender gave Minnesota great field position on the Illinois 9 yard line. The Gophers punch it in next play with Shannon Brooks. Minnesota recovers a muffled Illinois punt within the red zone, and Rodney Smith is able to punch it in next play. Minnesota forces a turnover on downs at the end of the game, and Kobe McCrary is able to score his first Big Ten touchdown.
Minnesota was given fantastic field position all day and were able to put 40 points on the board because of it. There was probably more left on the field if we're going to be honest, but Minnesota was able to put the backups in with such a big lead, so I'm not going to gripe on this too much.
2) Defense comes to play again
We've talked about how much of a linchpin that KiAnte Hardin and Ray Buford have been for this Gophers defense, and you saw that again on Saturday as Minnesota was able to limit Illinois to just 17 points on the day. Illini quarterback Jeff George Jr. completed less than 50% of his passes as Gophers defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel used all of his weekend minutes dialing up blitz after blitz in the second half as Minnesota ended the day with seven quarterback hits and many more pressures. Illinois rushing attack was averaging 5.6 yards per carry coming into Big Ten play on Saturday, and the Gophers were able to shut down the Fighting Illini for 89 yards on 34 carries (2.6 ypc).
With Hardin and Buford back in at nickle, Minnesota's defensive backs are able to blanket receivers with Damarius Travis and Antoine Winfield at safety, and Jalen Myrick at corner. This is the third straight Big Ten game for Minnesota that they've been able to limit their opponent to less than 20 points with Buford and Hardin in the lineup. This back seven will be tested next week going against a very pass happy Purdue team that has thrown the ball over 50 times on average in their last three Big Ten games.
True freshman safety Antoine Winfield led the Gophers in total tackles today with seven, and Jonathan Celestin kept up his stellar play of late with a tackle for loss plus two hits on the quarterback.
3) Gophers running backs were off to the races
Minnesota was able to grind this game away on the ground thanks to their two talented running backs of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Smith in particular is playing at such as high level right now as he displayed fantastic patience on multiple runs that allowed his blockers to get a helmet on a helmet, and then he'd burst through for the gain. Smith is also an extremely tough runner as he's able to carry or spin his way to a few extra yards on seemingly every run, and while that may not seem like much, there's a big different between a 2nd and 7, vs a 2nd and 4, and so on. Smith went for 100 yards on the ground (5.0 ypc) and two rushing scores, which puts him at 10 rushing touchdowns on the season and 801 rushing yards in total. Shannon Brooks hasn't been able to break off those big runs he's known for, but there's a legitimate argument to be made whether there's a better running back duo in the Big Ten right now. Brooks and Smith went for 159 on 32 carries (4.96 ypc) and three rushing touchdowns today. Kobe McCrary was even able to get into the end zone on the final drive, and in total, Minnesota ended with five rushing scores against Illinois.
It was an up and down day for this Minnesota offensive line as they struggled with the Illinois front seven throughout the day and with good reason, as Dawuane Smoot, Jarrod Clements and Jaylen Dunlap are damn good players. That being said, it's a group that still needs to work on getting push off the snap and maintain power and balance in pass pro. Leidner didn't consistently have a lot of time in the pocket, but you have to give credit to the big hogs in the red zone. Minnesota's five rushing scores were all from within the red zone, and power specifically was a very effective play for Minnesota there.
4) Passing game is still a work in progress
Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner finished 10 of 19 on the day for 112 yards, with a rushing touchdown and no turnovers. Leidner absolutely missed a few throws early, and while some fans are going to want to talk about the lack of deep shots down the field, I'm guessing that what I'm going to find on film is the same thing we've been talking about consistently lately, which is the lack of separation from these pass catchers. There were a few times were you could see where Leidner wanted to air it out deep, but ended up checking down or running with it, but we'll see what the film says tomorrow. Brian Smith dropped two balls, but Drew Wolitarsky was able to find the soft spot in the coverage and give Minnesota their biggest passing play of the season with a 35 yard gain, that I'm also surmising is the Gophers longest yards after catch of the 2016 season as well.
As far as what the fix is to Minnesota's passing game issues, it's going to be a collective effort to fix it. Offensive line has to have a better week against Purdue in giving Leidner time, the pass catchers have to create consistent separation and catch the targets they do get, plus they have to go attack the ball in the air, and Leidner has to be consistent with his accuracy on these short throws, and some of that comes back to his footwork and mechanics.
5) Need to keep it going next week
Minnesota's victory today means their riding a three game winning streak heading into a home game against a Purdue Boilermakers that's playing better of late, but still is a 1-4 Big Ten team that was absolutely gashed in the run today giving up 62 points to Penn State at home. Minnesota's special teams still needs to bring a more complete performance as Ryan Santoso struggled punting, especially early with only a ten yard punt, but he was able to still manage four punts inside the 20, even with a stingy wind. Emmit Carpenter made every extra point and his lone field goal attempt, but did kick another kickoff out of bounds. I believe that Minnesota's sixth of the season, and that needs to remain near that number for the remainder of the season. The coverage and return teams faired well today and some of that is because of the wind that held the ball up a little longer, but Minnesota had three punt returns on the day for 43 yards (14.3 average), and that's going to do a lot for flipping field position. The Gophers kickoff unit specially was performing well today as four returns only went for a total of 53 yards, so an average of 13 yards.
This is a win you should feel much better about than last week's squeaker against Rutgers. The Gophers were able to put the back-ups in with five minutes left and the defense was absolutely teeing off on Jeff George Jr. in the fourth quarter with multiple players, plus they only allowed 17 points. The offense capitalizes off turnovers and turns those into points as Minnesota was five for six in the red zone in turning those opportunities into touchdowns, and the other resulted in a field goal. That's going to win you a lot of ball games.
Minnesota needs to finish off this three game stretch next week with another win against Purdue, and they'll be right in the thick of the Big Ten West standings heading down to Nebraska.