MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — MarQueis Gray has had a lot of learning to do in his first season as Minnesota’s quarterback.
This was another new experience for him — a 20-point halftime lead.
Gray rushed for 167 yards and two touchdowns and threw for another score, guiding the Golden Gophers past backsliding Illinois 27-7 on Saturday in the season finale and sending the Fighting Illini to their sixth straight defeat.
“It felt pretty good to just relax,” said Gray, who took off 27 times to break the single-season rushing record for a Minnesota quarterback, giving him 966 yards. Billy Cockerham had 831 yards rushing in 1999.
“He could be an awful good player,” coach Jerry Kill said. “I’m certainly pleased with his progress.”
Troy Pollard’s 11-yard touchdown run in the third quarter was the only highlight for the Illini (6-6, 2-6 Big Ten), who wasted their best start in 60 years and put coach Ron Zook’s job in obvious danger. Nathan Scheelhaase, who was 4 for 6 for 15 yards in a quarterback time share with Reilly O’Toole, lost a costly fumble on one of his five sacks, the most by the Gophers in a game in more than three years.
“It was a great feeling,” said free safety Kim Royston. “That’s how defensive ball is supposed to be.”
Minnesota stopped an FBS-long streak of 23 straight games of giving up 17 or more points.
Illinois held an opponent under 100 yards passing for the fifth time this season — Gray went 7 for 14 for 85 yards — but couldn’t stop him from scrambling for critical first downs. Jordan Wettstein kicked field goals of 43 and 51 yards for the Gophers (3-9, 2-6), who have won nine of their last 12 games against the Illini.
They held Illinois to 18 yards on 23 plays in the first half and a season-low 160 yards on 59 plays for the game, by far the best performance of the year for a defense playing with a lot more speed and confidence than during that 58-0 loss at Michigan on Oct. 1.
This was the first time Minnesota had led from start to finish since winning 17-6 at Purdue on Oct. 25, 2008. The Gophers posted their largest margin of victory since beating Florida Atlantic 37-3 on Sept. 20, 2008, and their biggest in a conference game since a 63-26 win over Indiana on Nov. 4, 2006.
The Illini looked defeated and lethargic except for a first-down run by freshman O’Toole, who jumped up and pumped his fist to fire up the sideline in the third quarter. That drive was extended by a successful fake-punt run by Jay Prosch and capped by Pollard’s score, but the Gophers were unfazed.
They danced on the sideline between the third and fourth quarters and kept up their sure tackling throughout the final minutes. The outcome — and perhaps Zook’s dismissal — was sealed when sixth-year senior Royston sacked Scheelhaase for a 7-yard loss on fourth-and-goal at the 5-minute mark.
The Gophers punted on their first four possessions, but they got their first break early in the second quarter when Scheelhaase was sacked and stripped of the ball by Ra’Shede Hageman. Michael Amaefula recovered at the 16-yard line, and Gray slipped out of Steve Hull’s tackle on the next play on his way to an easy touchdown run.
Gray owned the next drive, too, finding Da’Jon McKnight for a pair of first downs and a wide-open John Rabe from 8 yards out on third down to stretch the lead to 14-0. Wettstein, the walk-on who took over four games ago when Chris Hawthorne got hurt, nailed a couple of kicks before the end of the half, and the Gophers took a 20-point lead to the locker room.
They padded it on their first possession of the third quarter after a 21-yard punt by Ryan Lankford gave them the ball at their 43. Gray finished the possession with a 14-yard touchdown run, putting a slick juke on DeJazz Woods at the line of scrimmage to jog into the end zone untouched.
The Illini, who beat Baylor in the Texas Bowl last year, have never won bowl games in consecutive seasons. There’s no guarantee they’ll get invited this time, with 10 eligible Big Ten teams and only eight contracted tie-ins. Ohio State, Northwestern and Purdue are all 6-6, too, and the Buckeyes are always a big draw.
“I honestly hope we go to a bowl, and I’m here to be able to do it,” Zook said.
Zook, 57, is 34-51 in seven seasons, a winning percentage that ranks 11th among the 13 Illini coaches who’ve coached more than one season.
“It doesn’t matter what I think. It’s what they think,” he said, referring to university officials. “I think this program is on very, very solid footing. I think it’s a pretty good team coming back.”
That’s what the Gophers were arguing too.
“I’ve got one year left if the coaching staff will let me come back,” Wettstein said.
Said Royston: “I think they might.”
Gray had a comedy act going on the podium too. The junior shook his head when he was reminded Kill had ordered the team to start the offseason conditioning program Monday.
Turning to senior running back Duane Bennett, Gray said: “He should’ve asked y’all to come along. Scholarships are all year long, right?”
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