Minnesota upsets Illinois with comeback, 38-34
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CHAMPAIGN -- The oddsmakers installed Illinois as a 21-point favorite, which made sense since Minnesota hadn't led in six weeks and hadn't won in 10 weeks.
The storytellers foresaw an emotional and inspired Senior Day performance, which made sense because Illinois had its fourth bowl bid in the last 16 seasons at stake.
Then came the game, which made no sense to anyone except Illinois fans conditioned to expect the worst.
The Illini took a 10-point lead with 8:14 to go, but Minnesota rallied for a 38-34 Big Ten triumph Saturday afternoon before 55,549 at Memorial Stadium.
The Gophers marched 80 yards into a fierce wind and won on DeLeon Eskridge's 2-yard touchdown plunge with 16 seconds left.
Illinois (5-5, 3-4) trailed by 10 points at the half, but rallied to build a 34-24 lead on Mikel Leshoure's 55-yard touchdown run with 8:14 left.
"We had so many opportunities," said Illinois coach Ron Zook. "Interceptions, guys dropping balls we could have had. Those are plays that mentally tell me we're not ready to play.
"To me, the biggest thing was we didn't go out there ready to play. And that's my fault. I'm the head coach and I'm supposed to have them ready to play."
After Minnesota (2-9, 1-6) intercepted a desperate pass on the game's final play, giddy Gophers dumped ice water on interim coach Jeff Horton at midfield, while the Illini slumped off to try to figure out what's next.
"I don't know how people are feeling right now," said senior linebacker Nate Bussey. "I'm just trying to keep myself poised and not let the anger and hostility do things or say things that I don't mean."
Bussey was the first of many Illini to signal it might not be their day.
On the first play from scrimmage, Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber fired a quick pass right at Bussey. Rather than return it for a touchdown, Bussey let it go through his hands to a receiver for an 11-yard gain.
Sometimes it wasn't Illinois' fault that things went awry. With the game 7-7 early in the second quarter, an egregious call stunted a drive and swung the momentum to Minnesota.
With the Illini facing third-and-5 at Minnesota's 22, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase tossed an option pitch backward to Leshoure.
When Leshoure dropped it on the turf (only for it to bounce right back into his hands for what would have been a big gain,) the linesman ruled it an incomplete pass.
Because the whistle blew, Zook's attempt to challenge the play wasn't allowed.
"Who knows what happens if it's different?" Zook said.
Minnesota went on to stop Illinois' fourth-down pass, which had the Gophers' players and coaches jumping around on the field.
Blessed with momentum and the wind, Minnesota tacked on 10 more points to take a 17-7 lead at the break.
That's when fifth-year senior Eddie McGee took the floor in the Illini locker room.
" 'Don't worry about anything else,' " Scheelhaase said, replaying McGee's speech. " 'Just focus on us, focus on executing. Play with unbelievable, relentless passion and just try and find a way to get it done.'
"I think we did come out with a lot more intensity the second half."
Helped by a fumbled kick return, Illinois stacked up 4 touchdowns in a 16-minute stretch to take that 34-24 lead with 8:14 to go.
That's when everything went kablooey.
Minnesota's Troy Stoudermire returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards to set up an Eskridge 4-yard touchdown run.
On Illinois' next two possessions, the offense failed to get a first down. A holding call on freshman tight end Evan Wilson negated a 25-yard run by Leshoure (18 carries, 141 yards, 2 TDs) that would have helped to ice it.
When Minnesota regained possession on its own 20 with 2:44 to go, the Illini vacated the middle and allowed a 29-yard quarterback draw on third-and-10 to ignite the winning drive.
Then fifth-year senior cornerback Travon Bellamy hit Duane Bennett late after a screen pass, which kept Minnesota from needing to convert a third-and-5.
Then the Gophers fooled the Illini with a 25-yard screen pass down to the 6-yard line. Eskridge powered in for the winning score on third-and-goal from the 2.
"The offense, the defense and the special teams: Everyone had a hand in this one," Zook said. "Like I told them, challenged them a little bit: Coaches are going to coach and players are going to play.
"We're going to do our best to get them in the right positions. They've got to go play. We'll find out if they want to play."
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