Needing just one win for bowl eligibility, the Illini defense was handling the Minnesota offense for much of the second half and the offense was running the ball with surprising effectiveness. Trailing by a point late in the fourth, however, Wes Lunt took a sack and Shannon Brooks galloped 75 yards on the ensuing drive for his third touchdown of the day as Minnesota topped Illinois, 32-23. It was a frustrating loss for a number of reasons, but mainly because it's another game that was clearly winnable but Illinois couldn't break through when it counted. It comes down to a Thanksgiving clash for the LOL Hat against Fitzie and Northwestern for the Illini's chance at a bowl game.
For those of you who are sick of ESPNews infomercials and are buried under the first snowfall of the year, settle in and read what we learned in the Illini's final road game of the season.
1. Malik Turner is tantalizing at times
For a team that had most of its offense in the training room all season, Illinois fans have been waiting for the emergence of Malik Turner. We saw it in the first half as Turner was all over the field as a lanky matchup problem for the Gophers. He's a Cubit favorite on bubble screens but he made the difference in attacking Minnesota down the field by hauling in a 13-yard touchdown on a corner route. He set career-highs in both catches (11) and yards (126).
After injuries mitigated his effectiveness as a freshman, Turner had a slow start to his sophomore campaign, but has been coming on in recent contests. In the first eight games of the year, Turner recorded 18 catches for 241 yards and no touchdowns; in the past three games, Turner has been much more involved with 19 catches for 223 yards and two touchdowns. The Illini are starving for playmakers outside the hashes and it was good to see the sophomore live up to his sizable potential.
2. Eaton Spence: Right place, facing wrong way
Eaton Spence has the situational awareness of a cactus.— U-God (@SBN_UGod) November 21, 2015
More like Beatin' Spence.— U-God (@SBN_UGod) November 21, 2015
It was a rough day for Mr. Spence.
He was picked on in coverage and despite being in close proximity to Minnesota receivers, he was seemingly never looking for the ball as it sailed over his head for a completion. This came to a climax at the end of the first half as he was manned up on 6-foot-5 freshman Rashad Stil. With only eight seconds left in the half, Stil used his size to haul in the touchdown just before halftime and left Spence flailing at air.
3. Cubit goes too conservative
Illinois had a lot of chances in this game but the normally aggressive Cubit went conservative in key situations that mainly backfired for the Illini. Trailing by eight in the third quarter, Lunt connected with tight end Andrew Davis for a touchdown but the Illini elected to not go for two and were still down 21-20. In the fourth, trailing by four after a Minnesota field goal, Cubit chose to run the ball on third-and-7 and kicked a field goal to AGAIN be down by a single point.
After a 75-yard touchdown with 1:23 left, Minnesota went aggressive and ran the ball for two points to make it a nine point lead and ending the game right there. Tip of the cap to Minnesota's Tracey Claeys on his first career win and hopefully Cubit can learn something from one interim coach to another. Unfortunately, there's not much time left for Cubit and the Illini and it's a game like this that even the staunchest Cubit supporters will have trouble defending. See you at Solider Field.