Defense, Running Game Rebounding

The defense made a strong showing against Illinois, and the running game showed signs of returning to form. It was a much-needed game for the previously reeling Gophers.

It's not easy to get it going again when momentum suddenly dies. The Gophers were dreaming of the Rose Bowl in early October when they rolled out to a 5-0 record. But losses to Michigan and Michigan State had this team questioning itself.

The Gophers may still have a few questions, but they appear to have gotten things going again with a 45-0 blowout win over hapless Illinois.

A week after giving up more than 600 yards to Michigan State, they blanked the Illini and held them to 202 total yards. Illinois simply could not get anything done against a defense that seemed to grow in stature as the game went along.

There was also a return to form of a running game that had been losing steam. Despite the strength of RBs Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney, the Gophers' rushing totals had declined in each of the preceding seven games.

That turned around as Barber and Maroney combined for 209 yards and two touchdowns.

This time it was Barber who had the more impressive performance. He carried 11 times for 137 yards and two touchdowns — including a 44-yard run early in the second quarter that gave Minnesota a 10-0 lead. He also threw a 21-yard TD pass to Ernie Wheelwright early in the third quarter that took whatever life was left in the Illini and snuffed it out. It was Barber's second TD pass this season.

"We were on the floor, there was no doubt about that," said Minnesota coach Glen Mason. "We had to get back up and we did. It's all on them (the players). They did the work and they deserve the credit."

QB Bryan Cupito also bounced back with a strong performance. He only completed 10-of-21 passes, but those 10 receptions netted 246 yards and several big plays. None was bigger than the 82-yard TD pass to Paris Hamilton in the third quarter.

That play made the score 38-0, so it was not huge in terms of the outcome. However, Cupito seemed to puff up with pride after the big play.

"Our goal at the start of the season was to go to the Rose Bowl," Cupito said. "I don't know if that is possible any more. But we can win all the rest and get to the best bowl game we can."

GAME BALL GOES TO: RB Marion Barber — Talk about a productive game. Barber averaged 12.5 yards per carry on 11 attempts and he rushed for two touchdowns — including a 44-yarder early in the second quarter that gave Minnesota a 10-0 lead. He also threw a beautiful 21-yard TD pass to Ernie Wheelwright, which was his second TD pass of the season.

KEEP AN EYE ON: WR Jared Ellerson — He is one of the underrated big-play threats on this team. When Ellerson catches the ball well, the Gophers generally become an explosive team. He caught four passes for 68 yards against Illinois.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I told Coop (QB Bryan Cupito) to watch out. I want his job." — RB Marion Barber after throwing his 21-yard TD pass to Ernie Wheelwright. Barber's comment elicited laughter throughout the Minnesota locker room.

LOOKING GOOD: The defense got back in gear after two rough weeks against Michigan and Michigan State. While Illinois is not a good team, coming up with a shutout did wonders for the Minnesota psyche. It was the Gophers' first shutout since beating Indiana 12-0 in the 1990 season. LB Kyle McKenzie led the way with 12 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks and a forced fumble, while LB Terance Campbell had three tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

STILL NEEDS SOME WORK: One great game is just that. The Gophers appear to be back on track. However, they need to play this way consistently and can't lose confidence the way they did in the Oct. 16 loss to Michigan State.

ROSTER REPORT: Offensive guard Brandon Harston did not play against Illinois because of a foot injury.

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