A week ago, the Minnesota Golden Gophers used a high-powered aerial attack to take down the Purdue Boilermakers. With an extremely efficient day from Tanner Morgan, the Gophers were able to jump out to an early lead and hang on for the victory to improve to 4-0.
The win was a good one during the early portion of the season as the Gophers look to keep building momentum each week, but their main concern was running the football. After the Purdue victory, the Gophers had averaged just 115 yards per game on the ground and their large offensive line hadn't done a great job of jump-starting the running game.
As the Gophers hosted the Illinois Fighting Illini for homecoming, the tone of the game changed as Minnesota used their running game to rack up 332 rushing yards in a 40-17 victory at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The game didn't get off to a picture-perfect start for the Gophers as Morgan and the rest of the offense struggled out of the gate. Morgan would be pressured on a dropback midway through the first quarter and threw a pick-six to Dele Harding to put Minnesota in a 7-0 hole.
The Illini would give the Gopher defense a gift to get back into the game, however as Brandon Peters was intercepted by Antoine Winfield Jr. that would set up a 28-yard field goal by Michael Lantz. After Minnesota forced a punt, Rodney Smith would take over to start a career day with a 64-yard dash up the sideline that would set up a Tyler Johnson 12-yard touchdown catch from Morgan to give the Gophers the lead.
Although the Gophers would score through the air, it was the ground game that really got the offense going. With Smith running for a career-high 221 yards and the returning Shannon Brooks running in for a 21-yard touchdown before halftime, the rushing attack would help Minnesota go into the locker room with a 16-10 lead.
In the second half, the Gophers came out on fire, engineering a four-play, 75-yard drive that would lead to a Morgan touchdown pass to Chris Autman-Bell to go up 23-10. Minnesota added on after a three-and-out by Illinois when Morgan tossed another touchdown to Brevyn Spann-Ford to extend the lead to 30-10.
Things got a little tighter for the Gophers after Milo Eifler recorded a scoop-and-score to bring things within 30-17, but the Gopher defense wouldn't let Illinois get closer as Minnesota added an insurance score on an eight-yard touchdown run from Smith and a 27-yard field goal by Lantz for a 40-17 victory.
The Gophers (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) are now off to their best start since the 2004 season when Glen Mason helped lead Minnesota to a 5-0 record. The Gophers will look to start 6-0 when they host Nebraska next Saturday for a 6:30 p.m. start against Nebraska.