Minneapolis — Minnesota’s injury-ravaged roster has forced several true freshmen into earlier-than-expected contributing roles.
Shannon Brooks and his fellow rookies have been a big help this season, let alone the foundation they’ve given the Gophers.
Brooks rushed for 174 yards and three touchdowns, including a 75-yard romp into the end zone with 1:25 remaining for Minnesota to seal a 32-23 victory over Illinois on Saturday.
“When your opportunity comes you’ve got to take advantage of it,” said Brooks, who’s averaging 6.4 yards per carry.
Mitch Leidner threw a third-and-goal touchdown pass to Rashad Still with 5 seconds left before halftime, helping the Golden Gophers (5-6, 2-5 Big Ten) stop a four-game losing streak and stay in contention for a postseason game.
Malik Turner caught 11 passes for 126 yards and a touchdown from Wes Lunt for the Fighting Illini (5-6, 2-5), who outgained the Gophers 432-343 in total yardage and had the ball for more than two-thirds of the second half.
“They’re a good football team. We’ve just got to keep fighting,” Lunt said.
The Gophers have won 11 of the last 15 games in this series, including five of the last seven. They gave coach Tracy Claeys his first victory in four games since he took over following Jerry Kill’s sudden retirement.
Both teams, now, will need to beat their biggest rivals next week to become bowl eligible. Illinois plays Northwestern in Chicago, which is officially a home game for the Illini, and Minnesota hosts Wisconsin. Only seven Big Ten teams have reached the six-win mark yet.
“Everybody’s really upset,” interim coach Bill Cubit said. “But I told them you’ve got one more shot.”
Taylor Zalewski’s third field goal of the game brought the Illini within one point with 6:56 remaining, and the Gophers were forced to punt for a third time in the second half. The Illini took over with a one-point deficit and less than five minutes left at the 16, and an 11-yard sack by Julian Huff pushed them back.
After a screen pass that gained 2 yards on third-and-21 and then a punt by the Illini, the Gophers got the ball back. Brooks took care of the rest. Leidner ran in for the 2-point conversion to put the game out of reach.
“The true freshmen playing like we are now, the sky is the limit,” Huff said.
That group includes Brooks, Huff, center Tyler Moore and cornerback KiAnte Hardin, who had knocked down a pass in the end zone on third down and returned a kickoff 60 yards that set up Ryan Santoso’s 46-yard field goal in the third quarter.
“This will pay off big time in the future years,” Claeys said.
The kickoff temperature of 22 degrees was the third-lowest in seven seasons for the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium. The record was Nov. 15, 2014, a 15-degree kickoff against Ohio State.
Josh Ferguson had 105 yards on 20 carries to move into eighth place on the all-time rushing list for Illinois, passing Pierre Thomas, Rashard Mendenhall and Howard Griffith.
Lunt, who leads the conference in completions despite a rash of drops by his receivers, found Turner open on third down for a 13-yard touchdown pass for the lead in the first quarter. Lunt’s short touchdown pass to Andrew Davis cut the lead to 21-20 in the third quarter.
The Gophers capped a crisp first half with a 15-play, 74-yard drive that ended with Leidner’s pivot right on third down for a perfect 1-yard fade pass to Still at the edge of the end zone to give them a 21-13 lead. That was the offense’s 10th touchdown in a seven-quarter span.
Turning a first-and-goal at the 1 into a touchdown was a relief for the Gophers and their fans, who gave away a golden chance to beat Michigan in similar albeit more dramatic fashion here on Oct. 31.
Leidner’s streak of four straight games of 250-plus yards passing ended, but he was turnover-free again while suffering a bad cut on his right hand and an injury to his left foot that had him in a walking boot afterward. With Wisconsin due in next week, Leidner was hardly feeling pain.
“There is nothing keeping me from that game,” Leidner said.