MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — With Minnesota coach Jerry Kill on his way to the hospital after another seizure, his staff was trying to prepare the heavily favored Gophers for the second half with a slim lead over Western Illinois.
The players had been through this before, so the message was simple: loosen up.
David Cobb and Rodrick Williams each rushed for two touchdowns to lead the Gophers past the Leathernecks 29-12 on Saturday.
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys addressed each position group during the intermission with an order to have fun the rest of the game.
“Because he’d be mad if we didn’t,” said Claeys, who told the players: “You’ve been trained well. You need to get after it, OK? Do your job. Don’t disappoint coach.”
The enjoyment took a while, but Cobb and Williams and the offensive line helped the Gophers (3-0) pull away in the fourth quarter. Cobb carried 13 times for 82 yards and Williams had 10 rushes for 46 yards. Mitch Leidner, who replaced the injured Philip Nelson at quarterback, ran 17 times for 64 yards.
“We knew they were both running threats. Their second-string quarterback was just as good as their first. It didn’t really change much,” linebacker Kevin Kintzel said.
Kill has epilepsy, and this is the fourth time in three seasons at Minnesota he’s had an episode on game day. The scene of Kill writhing back and forth on the sideline is always jarring nonetheless, and the sluggish Gophers found themselves trailing 12-7 until late in the third quarter.
“I just kept screaming, ‘We need to wake up!'” Williams said.
That they did, thanks to a strong afternoon-long performance by the defense, with 230 total yards allowed and three sacks. One of those came by a helmet-less Ra’Shede Hageman after an illegal use of hands penalty by a Leathernecks lineman forced it off.
Trenton Norvell threw two touchdown passes without a turnover for the Leathernecks (2-1), the latest FCS foe in position for an upset at Minnesota. But Norvell finished 11 for 23 for 162 yards, and Western Illinois was outgained on the ground 213 yards rushing to 68. The Gophers forced eight punts.
“It’s a game where obviously the only guys who think we can win are us,” coach Bob Nielson said, “and we showed we’re a team that can play hard and battle with the very best football teams.”
Nelson limped off with right hamstring injury after a third straight punt to start the game. Leidner’s first drive yielded a touchdown, the first score by the Gophers after more than 25-and-a-half minutes without, and he ran on seven of the 10 plays on that possession.
“It was a good feeling to get out there. It helps when I’ve got these two running backs here next to me to give the ball to. It definitely takes some pressure off the quarterback,” said Leidner, who was finished 7 for 8 for 105 yards passing.
The Leathernecks took the first lead on a patient drive capped by a fourth-and-goal toss from Norvell to Mason Howington. The 2-point conversion failed, but the confidence for Western Illinois was forged.
The Leathernecks finished 3-8 last season and were picked for ninth place out of 10 in the Missouri Valley Conference in the preseason poll, but they have the best all-time winning percentage of all of the state’s Division I football programs. Nielson has an even stronger record, with two Division II national championships at Minnesota Duluth in the last five years.
So when the Leathernecks retook the lead at 12-7 on an 11-yard pass from Norvell to fellow freshman Lance Lenoir, the situation looked all too familiar for Gophers fans remembering recent losses to MVC teams North Dakota State and South Dakota. Hageman blocked the extra point.
But Leidner played well in relief, except for his fumble at the goal line. Kintzel recovered and tried to return it but was tackled at the 1. Nathan Knuffman’s punt netted only 17 yards, and a few plays later Cobb was crossing the plain on a short run. Logan Hutton caught the 2-point conversion pass to make it 15-12 Minnesota.
Then Gophers pulled away, setting up Cobb’s second score with a twisting, acrobatic 19-yard reception by freshman tight end Maxx Williams. Earlier, Williams was the target on Leidner’s first college completion, lowering his shoulder to bowl over McDaniel for a 33-yard gain that set up the first touchdown.
Kill was at home, resting comfortably, two hours after the game, according to the university.
“We just had to keep him in the back of our minds and just make sure he was OK,” Hageman said. “But you know Coach Kill’s tough.”