Before any rebuilding program is taken seriously, it needs a milestone victory. The type of win that makes others stand up and take notice.
For the Gophers, that came with a 27-20 victory over Illinois. Beating the most recent Rose Bowl participant, on its own field, qualifies as the type of victory that can change the course of a program.
At 6-1, Minnesota has its best record since 2003. The Gophers, if not favored, will be competitive in every game the rest of the season. Suddenly, a New Year’s Day bowl doesn’t seem so crazy anymore. All because of one incredible afternoon in Champaign.
“I tell you what,” Gophers coach Tim Brewster said. “This victory is sweet.”
But it didn’t come without a fight, particularly in a wild fourth quarter.
There was a goal-line stand, DeLeon Eskridge’s 46-yard touchdown run, a turnover returned for a touchdown and a furious rally by Illinois, which left the Illini with 550 yards of offense but seven points short of overtime. And that was just the fourth quarter.
“I was saying at the end, that was probably the funnest five minutes I’ve ever had to play in football,” said Willie VanDeSteeg, the defensive hero of the game. “Nothing like it.”
The Gophers wouldn’t have pulled the upset without a monstrous game from VanDeSteeg, who accounted for three of the five sacks on Illini quarterback Juice Williams. He also forced Williams to fumble in the fourth quarter, and teammate Simoni Lawrence returned it for a touchdown and a huge momentum swing. Then he finished it off by hitting Williams on Illinois’ final drive with less than three minutes remaining. The ball floated into the arms of Ralph Spry, and the upset was complete.
Winning certainly makes it a little sweeter. Now with five games left, the Gophers are already bowl-eligible. And after the win over the Illini, there is no doubt they’re headed in the right direction.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The schedule — All of a sudden, Minnesota has to be taken seriously the rest of the way. The Gophers should be competitive in every game the rest of the way — at Purdue, Northwestern, Michigan, at Wisconsin and Iowa. A strong case could be made that they won’t lose a game the rest of the way, which seemed to be ridiculous just four weeks ago.
LOOKING GOOD: The defense sacked Juice Williams five times and forced him into a pair of turnovers, helping negate the 500-plus yards of offense Illinois registered. Minnesota turned three turnovers into 14 crucial points.
Steve Davis, in the biggest goal-line stand of his career, stuffed Williams one foot shy of the end zone on fourth-and-goal at the end of the third quarter.
STILL NEEDS WORK: QB Adam Weber was sacked three times in the first half, stalling potential drives. The problems were fixed in the second half, and Weber remained upright the rest of the day.
The offense was twice hit with critical 15-yard penalties. One drive resulted in a touchdown anyhow, while the other took the Gophers out of field-goal range and forced them to punt.
Illinois gobbled up 550 yards of total offense. The secondary was gashed by Juice Williams, as the Illini threw for 462 yards.
Part of the reason Juice Williams threw for 462 yards was the loss of CB Marcus Sherels, who was unable to play after suffering a right shoulder injury the previous week against Indiana. Sherels warmed up, but he couldn’t go against the Illini. Sophomore Ryan Callado started in his place, with junior Michael McKelton also seeing time early.
Minnesota 31, Northern Illinois 27: Duane Bennett scored on a one-yard plunge with 22 seconds left to send the Gophers to a season-opening victory. Bennett scored a pair of touchdowns on the day and helped Minnesota avoid losing despite choking away an 11-point second-half lead.
Minnesota 42, Bowling Green 17: Quarterback Adam Weber threw for 233 yards and accounted for four touchdowns, and the Gophers put the game away with a 21-point avalanche in the fourth quarter. Minnesota turned four BG turnovers in the second half into touchdowns, blowing open what had been a tight game.
Minnesota 35, Montana State 23: Eric Decker caught nine passes for 154 yards and a score, DeLeon Eskridge became the first freshman in 22 years to rush for at least three touchdowns and the Gophers improved to 3-0 with the victory over the Bobcats.
Minnesota 37, Florida Atlantic 3: Freshman DeLeon Eskridge rushed for 78 yards and two scores, the Gophers rushed for 206 yards as a team and the defense kept FAU out of the end zone to improve to 4-0 this year. Minnesota limited FAU to 276 total yards one season after the Owls scored 42 points and racked up nearly 600 yards of offense against the Gophers.
Ohio State 34, Minnesota 21: For the first time this year, the Gophers lost the turnover battle, and ultimately the game. The Gophers turned the ball over three times, leading to exactly half of the Buckeyes’ points (17 of 34). Freshman DeLeon Eskridge had 76 yards on 18 carries and Adam Weber threw for 187 yards, a touchdown and an interception in the loss.
Minnesota 16, Indiana 7: But for a breakdown in protection that led to a 77-yard TD pass, the Gophers’ defense was stout. Adam Weber threw for 274 yards without an interception, completing 13 passes to Eric Decker. Joel Monroe kicked three field goals in the second half.
Minnesota 27, Illinois 20: Illinois lost two fumbles inside its own 10-yard line that turned into Minnesota touchdowns, as former Illini All-Big Ten tight end Tim Brewster earned the biggest win of his short head-coaching career during his alma mater’s homecoming. Illini QB Juice Williams threw for 462 yards and rushed for 41.