CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — That’s a statement win for Lovie Smith’s program.
After a back-and-forth first half, Illinois was finally able to bust it open in the second for a 55-31 win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-5, 1-5 Big Ten) on Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium. The win — Illinois’ first major conference win since beating Michigan State on Dad’s Day in 2016 (sorry, Rutgers) — snaps a three-game losing skid for the Illini and the first contest without defense coordinator Hardy Nickerson.
It has been a miserable past few weeks for Illinois fans. Blowout losses to Purdue, Maryland, and Wisconsin had many questioning the leadership of the program and the direction in which it was heading.
After Saturday’s performance, however, it seems that all hope is not lost.
“That was probably the most fun I’ve had playing football in a long time,” said senior Nick Allegretti.
Reggie Corbin opened up the scoring on the second play from scrimmage, finding a hole and prancing 72 yards for the touchdown. Minnesota countered with a long touchdown drive of its own that ended with a 4-yard run from Mohamed Ibrahim.
Senior Dre Brown was able to get in on the first quarter as well. On the second play of the second series for Illinois, Brown mirrored Corbin with a 72-yard touchdown of his own. Ricky Smalling was not to be left out of the action, either. He was able to make a couple Gophers miss on a screen pass before exploding for a 67-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
“I think [my touchdown] got everybody fired up,” said Corbin. “I was fired up; a little too fired up. I got a little dizzy after that. I think I need to calm down a little bit. But, when you see those guys, those horses running down the field and they’re happy, you see Nicky [Allegretti] and Doug [Kramer] smiling, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
The defense put together an impressive outing with Lovie Smith calling the shots. They were able to force five three-and-outs, two fumbles, a turnover on downs, and had a fumble return for a touchdown call reversed just before half. Minnesota capitalized on the reversal and ended the first half with a 28-yard field goal, cutting the deficit to 24-17.
The defense stepped up overall, holding the Gophers to 438 total yards and quarterback Tanner Morgan to 14 of 27 passing and 258 yards. The offense shined as well with four scores of 60-plus yards and 646 total yards, 430 which were rushing.
“We’re not even scratching the surface with this team,” Corbin said. “Our offense is really powerful. Our defense is getting better. Regardless of what anyone says, they’re getting better. I’m proud of those guys.”
After another third down stop from Lovie’s new and improved defense to open the half, senior quarterback AJ Bush led the ensuing possession, rushing five times for 63 yards and the touchdown to put Illinois up 31-17 midway through the third quarter. A Minnesota fumble then set up another Illinois score. This time, it was Bush finding tight end Daniel Barker for a 30-yard touchdown — the first of Barker’s career.
And then the offensive onslaught continued. With about four minutes remaining in the third quarter, Corbin exploded for another long touchdown run — 77 yards to be exact.
“We’ve been through adversity,” Corbin said. “I think LeBron said, ‘even Cinderella lost her shoe.’ It is what it is. You go through adversity.”
Reggie Corbin's 77-yard TD run in the third quarter was his fourth run of 70+, fifth run of 60+ and seventh run of 50+.— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) November 3, 2018
First career touchdown for true freshman TE Daniel Barker.— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) November 3, 2018
HE SAID IT
“It was a blast. My dad’s been the biggest role model in my life. I like to shoot to be what he’s been as a father to me. That’s my goal in life. My success, my failures, he’s happier for me than I am and they hurt him more than they hurt me. So happy to be able to get a win for him and for myself. It was pretty cool to see him after the game.” - Allegretti, on Dad’s Weekend and the win.
We’ll see if Illinois can string together another four quarters next Saturday when they travel to Nebraska. The Cornhuskers (2-7, 1-5) have struggled in Scott Frost’s first year as head coach, but gave Ohio State a close game today. No scheduled time for kickoff has been announced yet.
“I cannot wait to clean up some things and see where we can go from here,” Lovie Smith said after his ninth win over three years.
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