Illini Stunned By Homecoming Loss to Gophers

Rejus Benn (AP)

A beautify day, cloudless sky and temperature in the low 80's, greeted a sellout crowd of returning alumni for Homecoming Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Unfortunately, the Minnesota put a damper on the festivities with a 27-20 upset of the Fighting Illini. This loss hurt.

Coach Zook said afterward that all the players must share the responsibility for the loss, one of the most aggravating in recent memory.

"We didn't deserve to win that game. It was a game where the offense, defense, and special teams had their part in it. We had chances to make things happen, and we didn't capitalize on it."

Zook was aware of this possibility ahead of time. He did his utmost to help his players understand the importance of preparing for an inspired Minnesota team striving to become bowl eligible. But the Gophers triumphed anyway.

"That's what we worried about all week, that this team was gonna come in here and give us all they had, and they did. My hat's off to them. They did a great job."

This game is a perfect example of how statistics can lie. If one looks only at the statistics, Illinois should have won handlily. They had 550 yards of total offense, 238 more than Minnesota, and they had nine more first downs. It reminded of the 1973 game when Illinois outgained the Gophers by more than 300 yards but still lost, 19-16.

Inconsistencies, mistakes at bad times, frustrating special team play, and poor field position all contributed to the loss. The capacity crowd of 62,870 was looking for a reason to back its team, but the Illini failed to fire them up, especially in the first half.

Mike Cklamovsky's two first half kickoffs both went out of bounds, giving Minnesota possession on their own 40 yard line each time. The Gophers marched quickly to score on their first possession as quarterback Adam Weber completed his first five passes, the last a 25 yard touchdown to star receiver Eric Decker. The Illini were fighting from behind from then on.

Quarterback Juice Williams had a remarkable day statistically for the Illini, and his favorite receiver Arrelious Benn had his third consecutive game with more than 100 yards receiving. But Benn also fumbled Minnesota's first kickoff back into the end zone and ran it out only to the 2 yard line. The Illini drove to within field goal range, but Matt Eller's field goal from 45 yards missed by inches.

It remained 7-0 until late in the second quarter when Eller connected from 33 yards to give the Illini some life. But as would be true the whole day, Illinois' inability to dent the Gopher defense in the red zone proved its undoing.

Distraught Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley was unsure why Illinois couldn't score once they got close to the end zone.

"We tried to establish some run game inside the red zone, but for whatever reason the run bogged down. Once we get a chance to watch it on tape, we'll have a chance to make a better assessment."

The Illini were fortunate to be behind only 7-3 at the half as untimely penalties and inconsistent play kept fans sitting on their hands. They needed to come out fired up for the second half to reverse first half trends, but Daniel Dufrene fumbled the ball over the the Gophers on the first scrimmage play. Needing only 8 yards, Minnesota running back DeLeon Eskridge scored to give his team an 11 point edge.

Illinois came roaring back, gaining three consecutive first downs on a Juice run for 14 yards, a Benn catch for 11 yards, and a grab by tight end Michael Hoomanawanui for 19 more. But again, the Illini offense bogged down. Eller's 28 yard field goal made it 14-6. Inspired from the start, Minnesota was allowed to stay in the game emotionally, and it took advantage of it.

Illinois continued to march with seeming ease until it reached the Gopher goal line. Late in the third quarter, the Illini had four plays to score from the five yard line and couldn't push it over. Juice's 4 yard run on second down put the ball inches away, but the next two plays both failed. Gopher defenders were exhilarated by their big stand.

Offensive guard Jon Asamoah was at a loss for an explanation afterward.

"It's tough. It's hard to put into words. We have to score with two plays on the one yard line."

After an exchange of punts, Minnesota took the ball on its 20 yard line. Unable to move the ball consistently through the middle quarters, the Gophers suddenly regained their early momentum. Decker grabbed three straight passes. Then the freshman Eskridge found a big hole, weaved through the secondary and put on an extra burst of speed to outrace Illini defenders to the end zone. The score was 20-6 as the extra point was missed.

Illinois finally put together a touchdown drive to close the gap. Noticing a Minnesota defensive lapse, freshman receiver A. J. Jenkins grabbed a sideline pass and went untouched 54 yards for his first college score.

With the score now 20-13, an exchange of punts gave the Illini the ball at their own 12 yard line. There was still time to win the game. But on first down, Juice was hit by Minnesota defensive end Willie VandeSteeg as he was looking to throw. Simone Lawrence scooped up the loose ball and stuck the final dagger in the Illini with a 6 yard return for a score.

Illinois took only three plays to reclose the gap to seven points. Juice found Will Judson open over the middle for 45 big yards, and Jenkins then made a spectacular leaping grab in the back of the end zone to complete a 35 yard play.

With the crowd now firmly behind the Illini, safety Donsay Hardeman produced Minnesota's only turnover on the day with his hard hit on receiver Ralph Spry. Freshman defensive tackle Corey Liuget recovered the fumble on the Illini 48 yard line. Fans were sensing a comeback victory.

Unfortunately, Juice was hit while throwing a pass, and Ryan Collado intercepted to stop Illinois' last hope for victory. The Illini kept battling, but it was too little too late.

Benn had his best ever day as an Illini, grabbing 12 balls for 181 yards. Jenkins had a breakout day with 117 yards in three spectacular plays. And the speedy Judson accumulated 73 yards on three receptions.

Overall, Juice Williams completed 26 of 41 passes for 462 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 41 more yards despite five sacks, giving him 503 yards of total offense. But it wasn't good enough.

"Yeah, real tough game," Locksley understated. "Obviously, a winnable game. When we turn the ball over, one interception and two fumbles, give up sacks, three drops, that's beating yourself. I also played a part in it. We can't get an inch in three plays. Somehow, some way, I've got to figure a way to get us into the endzone."

A team who's goal has been to win a Big Ten Championship must now look themselves in the mirror and decide how they want the rest of the season to transpire. This will be a difficult but important week for the Illini says Zook.

"We're gonna regroup, and we're gonna find out exactly what type of team we are now."

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