Saturday, November 26, 2011
Final: Minnesota 27, Illinois 7
By Brian Bennett
What if I had told you on Oct. 8, when Illinois was 6-0 and ranked in Top 20 and Minnesota was 1-5 with losses to New Mexico State and North Dakota State, that both teams would finish with the same number of Big Ten victories? Or that the Gophers would actually end the year feeling a whole lot better about themselves than the Illini?
You probably would have laughed me out of the room. But that's just what happened, thanks to a historically bad collapse by Illinois and a nice recovery by Minnesota.
Let's talk about the Gophers first, because they're the ones who showed up for this game and played like a competent team. Nothing came easy for them in this 3-9 season, but their improvement down the stretch was obvious. Jerry Kill has begun to build a foundation, and with quarterback MarQueis Gray continuing to develop, he's got an anchor to work with. Gray ran for 172 yards and two touchdowns and threw for a score on Saturday. It was nice to see the Minnesota players have some fun on the sidelines after all they've been through this year. They will now go into the offseason with some positive feelings.
As for Illinois? Well, maybe Ron Zook should have kept on walking when he stormed out of his news conference a couple of weeks ago. I can't imagine what Zook can say to new athletic director Mike Thomas now when he makes the case to keep his job.
The Illini are bowl eligible, but what game would want them at this point? Bowls like teams with momentum, and they've got all the wrong momentum with a six-game losing streak. Add in all-but-certain lame-duck coach, and there's little reason for Illinois fans to get excited about traveling to watch this team play again, especially during basketball season.
After compiling only 19 yards and one first down in the first half, the Illini got a little better in the second half on offense, only because it was impossible to do worse. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase played only a couple of snaps after being pulled in the second quarter, and Reilly O'Toole led the team on its only scoring drive.
But Illinois still managed just 168 total yards against one of the league's worst defenses; the offense completely floundered during the six-game skid, and Scheelhaase regressed after a promising first year and a half on the job. The biggest culprit, though, was an offensive line that suddenly stopped blocking anybody.
The Illini have a lot of questions to answer, and I wouldn't be stunned if they got left out of the bowl picture even if there are open slots. The players certainly can't be excited about bowl practice, and it may be time to get started on a new direction with this program.