CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Minnesota came to Illinois on Saturday as 21-point underdogs, with a long losing streak that cost coach Tim Brewster his job weeks ago and, you might think, leaving them little to play for.
Some fans spent the week e-mailing Jeff Horton, Brewster’s interim replacement, advising that senior quarterback Adam Weber see more of the bench so sophomore MarQueis Gray can start getting ready for next year.
The Fighting Illini wish Horton would have listened.
Weber threw for 225 yards on a wet, gray, windy Saturday and engineered a last-gasp touchdown drive that gave the Gophers (2-9, 1-6 Big Ten) a 38-34 comeback win. Tailback DeLeon Eskridge ran in the game-winning touchdown from 2 yards with 16 seconds left to play, his third TD of the day.
As they drove down the field, the Golden Gophers felt like they had nothing to lose, Weber said.
“At this point in the season, there’s really no reason to feel nervous or on edge or anything, especially when you’re in a two-minute drive,” he said. “The biggest thing you have to do is stay calm, stay collected and try to score points.”
“Enough is enough,” Horton added. “Enough heartache, enough setbacks.”
The result leaves the Illini (5-5, 3-4) a game shy of bowl eligibility with only road games left at Northwestern and Fresno State, and wondering what’s happened to the defense that was once their strength. Illinois has given up 105 points over the past two games, including a 67-65 loss to Michigan.
“That’s two games in a row now that we haven’t handled the situations, two games in a row we haven’t tackled the way we’re capable of tackling,” Illini coach Ron Zook said in a postgame radio interview. “It was a team effort — we’re all going to suffer on this one.”
Minnesota’s win seemed to surprise the Gophers at least as much as it did the Illini. Gopher assistants who work in the press box ran through yelling “Yeah! We got one!” as soon as the game ended.
If not for Weber’s and Eskridge’s late-game magic — and two near interceptions that fell to the ground — it might have been Illinois assistants cheering a place in the postseason.
Trailing 34-31 and facing a third and 10 at his own 20 with 2:30 to play, Weber dropped back to pass and didn’t see an open receiver. Instead he saw a huge hole in the middle of the Illinois defense, and ran straight into it for 29 drive-saving yards to the Minnesota 49.
Illinois then had its two chances to finish the Gophers, and came up with neither.
First Weber tried to hit Gray — also one of the Gophers’ leading receivers — but instead found defensive back Tavon Wilson. Gray hit Wilson, knocking the ball away.
Then, with the ball at Illinois’ 6-yard line, Weber tried to force a pass to Da’Jon McKnight that defensive back Travon Bellamy had two hands on but dropped.
Finally, from the 2, Eskridge rescued the Gophers, slicing through the left side of his line and into the end zone.
Weber, who said during the week that he understood fans’ calls for more Gray, was 20 of 26 for 225 yards and two TDs. He was seldom pressured by the Fighting Illini and wasn’t sacked.
Zook credited Minnesota’s protection, noting Weber has been sacked a relatively low 15 times this season. But defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said his defense has played flat two weeks running.
“We just haven’t been able to get the spirit and get that last little edge,” he said. “The defense has played so much with emotions, and we just haven’t had the emotion (the last two weeks).”
With just over eight minutes to play, the Illini looked close to locking up a sixth win and bowl eligibility when Mikel Leshoure burst around the right end for a 55-yard touchdown that, with the extra point, gave Illinois a 34-24 lead.
Badly needing an answer to Leshoure’s potentially backbreaking run, the Gophers got a 92-yard kickoff return by Troy Stoudermire. Eskridge scored this time, too, running 4 yards on second down and pulling the Gophers back to within three at 34-31 with 7:55 to play.
Leshoure, who finished with 141 yards on 18 carries and two touchdowns, said the Illini overlooked Minnesota, assuming they’d win.
“I think guys were just looking past this game and trying to get bowl eligible,” he said. “I’m not sure what the problem is, we just didn’t play like we have in the past.”
Minnesota’s defense sacked Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase three times, and held him to 172 yards on 10 of 21 passing. He threw two touchdown passes but struggled after an early 28-yard strike to A.J. Jenkins.
The Gophers led 17-7 at the half, an advantage Horton said they weren’t sure how to handle.
“Halftime was almost as though it was the end of the game,” he said. “We had to settle them down because we hadn’t had the lead during halftime in a long time.”
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