MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Using just two different plays, Minnesota marched down the field midway through the fourth quarter against Illinois on Saturday. Kobe McCrary carried the ball six times. Rodney Smith ran five times during a grinding, 12-play drive.
The Gophers finally stuck with the run and ran over the young Illini.
McCrary ran for 153 yards and the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, and Smith added 103 yards rushing for Minnesota as the Gophers beat Illinois 24-17 victory.
Linebacker Jon Celestin returned an interception for a touchdown in the fourth to provide the winning margin for Minnesota (4-3, 1-3 Big Ten). The Gophers ran for 292 yards as a team and held the Illini (2-5, 0-4) to 282 total yards.
“I was really proud of how Kobe put people on his shoulders, literally,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. “That last touchdown, that’s all want-to, heart, grit, toughness and he finished the drive.”
“That was an impressive drive by our offense. We only ran two plays and we just went right down the field. That was a statement for me that, ‘OK, we need to go back to who we are.'”
With 10:06 remaining in the game, the Gophers went 75 yards in 12 plays, all runs, and went ahead 17-10 on McCrary’s 4-yard touchdown run. Filling in for an injured Shannon Brooks as part of Minnesota’s split backfield, McCrary set a career-high with 24 carries.
The senior back entered the game with just 115 yards rushing on the season; 107 coming when he filled in for Brooks in the third game of the year.
“My mindset was to make sure the running backs didn’t skip a beat,” McCrary said. “I knew I had to step in and fill his role. We came in the game and we had to dominate the line of scrimmage. We had to run the ball. Coach got me prepared, so I just ran hard like I did.”
Illinois sophomore quarterback Jeff George Jr. was 18-of-23 passing for 128 yards with a late touchdown pass to freshman receiver Ricky Smalling. Freshman running back Ra’Von Bonner had 18 carries for 57 yards and a touchdown.
The Illini scored 10 points off turnovers, creating three on the day and finishing a plus-1 in turnover-margin.
“I think we had three takeaways and whenever you can take the ball away it’s a good thing,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “I thought the defense did some good things but the way we started, and the drive play for them to go up seven, is disappointing.”
CROFT’S SECOND CHANCE
Minnesota opened the game with a 72-yard drive for a touchdown with quarterback Demry Croft throwing an 8-yard touchdown to Tyler Johnson.
Croft earned the starting job over senior Conor Rhoda after sparking the Gophers with three fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Johnson in last week’s loss to No. 18 Michigan State. The sophomore quarterback was 5-of-15 passing for 47 yards on Saturday and threw two interceptions.
“I thought at times he looked a little bit hurried and he was speeding up the game,” Fleck said. “We have to get him to slow down. When he slows down and focuses, he is a really good quarterback. You saw that last week.”
TWO FOR ONE
Illinois split time at quarterback between George and freshman Cam Thomas. Thomas received his first playing time of the season, rushing for 79 yards and going 2-of-4 passing for 33 yards and throwing the clinching interception to Celestin with 4:11 remaining.
“By playing two, we felt like we needed more at the quarterback position and we felt like both guys could give us something,” Smith said. “In the end with our passing game, where we are right now, we thought Jeff would give us the better option. But normal down and distance, we wanted to get Cam some reps and see what he can do.”
Illinois: A missed opportunity on Saturday leaves Illinois still looking for its first Big Ten victory and Thomas became the 21st true freshman to play for the Illini this season. The least experienced team in college football with 14 true freshmen starters, Illinois is still experimenting, particularly on offense after interchanging two quarterbacks for the first time.
Minnesota: Getting Fleck’s first win in the Big Ten offered some relief for the Gophers, and perhaps they found something to build on with McCrary and the rushing attack. Fleck said McCrary has earned more playing time. Minnesota should look to build on the success running the ball.
Illinois: The Illini return home next Saturday for their homecoming against No. 5 Wisconsin (7-0, 4-0).
Minnesota: The Gophers travel to Iowa (4-3, 1-3) next week.
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