Minnesota's senior class got to go out in style as the Minnesota Golden Gophers played their best game of the year on Saturday afternoon, dominating the Illinois Fighting Illini for most of the day and emerging with a 27-7 victory in the Big Ten regular season finale for both teams.
The Golden Gophers defense was nothing short of dominant in the first half. Illinois went three-and-out on six of their first seven possessions, and the one possession that wasn't a three-and-out was a fumble that RaShead Hageman forced on Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase that set the Gophers up at the Illini 16-yard line. MarQueis Gray took it from there, as he rumbled into the end zone on the very next play to give Minnesota a 7-0 lead. Gray played a big part in the second scoring drive, too, as he hit tight end John Rabe for an 8-yard touchdown pass on Minnesota's next drive to make it 14-0.
A couple of Jordan Wettstein field goals gave Minnesota a 20-0 lead at halftime. Going into the locker room, the Fighting Illini generated all of one first down, and that came with less than a minute left in the half. Illinois had just 18 yards of total offense in the first half of play. The 20-point lead for the Gophers was the first time they had led anybody by at least 20 points since taking a 35-13 lead against Purdue back in 2009.
Minnesota wasted no time in expanding their lead in the second half, as they moved down the field on their first possession of the half and got into the end zone again, as Gray put up another rushing score. This one was a 14-yarder, and gave the Gophers a 27-0 lead.
Illinois did finally get on the scoreboard, as running back Troy Pollard got into the end zone for Illinois with 4:25 left in the third quarter. The 11-yard touchdown run cut the Minnesota lead to 27-7, but that was as close as Illinois would get, as neither team would score again the rest of the way.
It was, by far, the most impressive and dominant performance by the Golden Gophers this season. They more than doubled Illinois' total yardage output (338 to 160), and put up 248 yards on the ground. 167 of those yards belonged to Gray, who came up just four yards short of tying the Gopher record for rushing yards for a quarterback that he set earlier this season against Miami (Ohio). The Gophers also went 8-of-16 on third down, and only took two penalties on the afternoon.
The victory leaves Minnesota with a record of 3-9 on the season, and a 2-6 record in the Big Ten Conference. Curiously, the Illini have the same 2-6 conference record that the Gophers have, and finish with a 6-6 record overall. The speculation is that Illinois coach Ron Zook is on a very, very hot seat at the moment, as the Illini started out the season on a six-game winning streak. . .and proceeded to finish the season with a six-game losing streak.
That concludes the 2011 Minnesota Golden Gophers football season. We thank all of you that have made us your source for score updates and coverage throughout the season, and we will continue to be your best source of Gopher football updates as the off-season goes on.