CHAMPAIGNIt has been 398 days since Illinois last won a Big Ten game. It will be at least seven more before the Illini have another chance to end that streak.
Lack of offense and costly penalties led to a 17-3 defeat in a very winnable game against Minnesota. The loss was the seventh straight for the Illini (2-8, 0-6) and head coach Tim Beckman did not try to couch his disappoint after the game.
Early in the game we had a couple opportunities to take big strikes, to take big hits, and we overthrew wide open receiversso we dont get points out of that. Things like that you have to make if youre going to be successful and our players arent making those plays right now, he said. We were on offense very, very inconsistent, and to be honest, the worst Ive been around.
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The Illinois offense came out with a roar. On the first play from scrimmage running back Donovonn Young broke off a 16-yard run. On the ensuing play Young took the hand-off from Nathan Scheelhaase and flicked it back to him, allowing the quarterback to find Spencer Harris streaking over the middle for a 49-yard reception.
Illinois continued moving the ball, but got held up at the one-yard line and had to settle for a 20-yard field goal from Nick Immekus.
Going down the field to stalemate at the one is tough, I dont know what it isI cant point fingers, Young, a sophomore, said.
Weve got to get off the football, bloody some mouths, and get us a yard when we need a yard, Beckman said, venting frustration about settling for a field goal. We cant put the ball on the one-yard line for three downs and not get the ball in the end zone. This is college football.
Stalling out at the one would be a turning point, and the Illini would not crack the red zone again in the game. A couple of holding penalties at inopportune moments later in the half killed drives before they could gain momentum.
On defense, Illinois held firm whenever Minnesota got across midfield. The Illini limited the visitors to just 18 passing yards in the first half and held them scoreless until late in the second quarter.
Without many passing options, the Gophers looked to the run. Midway through the second quarter Minnesota got the ball at their own 32 and Donnell Kirkwood wasted no time getting his team into Illinois' territory with a 38-yard run.
The Illinois defense held up once again, this time holding off the Minnesota offense on the three-yard line, forcing a 20-yard field goal from Jordan Wettstein with 3:30 left in the half. The teams would go to the locker room at halftime tied 3-3.
After a quiet start to the second half, Minnesota marched into Illinois territory late in the third with their first completion since the opening quarter. After a few good plays from the Illini defense, the Gophers looked stymied. A hands to the face penalty on Akeem Spence gave Minnesota a fresh start, setting the visitors up with a first down from the Illinois five yard line.
Two plays after the penalty Kirkwood hit pay dirt as he rumbled into the endzone for the games first touchdown. His three-yard run gave Minnesota a 10-3 lead with 2:30 left in the third quarter.
Illinois tried to mount a response, but could not get much going with the ball in hand. The Illini had a total of just five yards of net offense in the third quarter and would not cross over midfield in the half until there was seven minutes left in the game.
Its frustrating, said offensive coordinator Chris Beatty after the game. I have to do a better job to help them, thats the bottom line.
The defense gave Illinois a couple of chances late in the game, coming up with a couple stops in their own territory to hold off the Gophers. The Illini offense, however, could not create any points.
On the first chance, starting at 7:53 in the fourth, Scheelhaase moved Illinois down to the Gophers 35 yard line with 28 yards rushing by himself. After Minnesotas defense forced a fourth down, his pass sailed through Darius Millines hands.
After the second defensive stop Illinois took over with 2:31 left on the clock. The team quickly got to third-and-one on their own 29-yard line, but Scheelhaase dangled the ball on the quarterback keeper and the Gophers punched it loose. Derrick Wells recovered the fumble for Minnesota and took the ball down to the Illinois 19.
The fumble led to a 12-yard rushing touchdown by Kirkwood just 47 seconds later. The touchdown was the nail in the coffin, putting the game out of reach for Illinois.
Beckman was left grasping for answers after the loss.
Scoring three points is not going to cut it in any league, he said. I havent been around thislosing. Its been tough, but weve got to find ways to motivate them.
The players also struggled with the errors of the game and the struggles of this season as a whole.
Its tough expecting so much and gaining so little from this season, Young said.
The focus going forward, according to senior defensive back Michael Buchanan, is to make the young playerslike true freshman Mason Monheim, who led all players with 15 tacklesget better.
I only have two games left in my career, but Im always going to be an Illini at heart, so we want to set a path for the younger guys, Buchanan said. I do feel like were playing better as a team the last couple weeks as a teamwe just want to set the path for next year so the younger guys dont have to go through this.