The Illini took three years worth of frustration out on PJ Fleck and Minnesota, and in the process, gave Lovie what is arguably his biggest win as Illini head coach. All this AND giving PJ Fleck his worst loss as Minnesota’s head coach.
So let’s hand out some grades to the good eggs for Saturday’s win.
After flashing glimpses of explosiveness throughout the season, the Illini offense took the top off the Gophers’ defense on numerous occasions on Saturday. The fun started with a 72-yard run from Reggie Corbin on the second play from scrimmage. On the Illini’s next drive, they scored on the second play — this time a 72-yard touchdown run from Dre Brown.
The big plays continued as the Illini had scoring plays of 67, 30 and 77 yards.
All in all, the Illini amassed 646 yards of offense — 430 rushing, 216 passing — and averaged 10.8 yards per play as they overwhelmed the Gophers’ defense. The three turnovers on Saturday kept the Illini from having an A+ performance
Offense and defense do not exists in separate vacuums, and this was perfectly illustrated on Saturday. Illinois’ defense has been porous to say the least and was dealt a great deal of turmoil this week when defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson resigned, but Saturday showed some improvement as they held the Gophers offense to 6.25 years per play.
Let’s not kid ourselves: 6.25 yards per play is not typically ideal, but it’s perfectly fine when the other side of the ball averages 10.8 yards per play. The key is too outpace your opponent. The Illini did just that on Saturday and the defense did its part to ensure a comfortable victory over the Gophers.
Lovie Smith: A +
PJ Fleck: F
Fleck has been loud, brash, and boisterous since he took over Minnesota. He was really loud when he landed commitments from three of the top players in Illinois this spring. Lovie, on the hand, is quiet and reserved, but Saturday spoke volumes as he got a signature win over Fleck. For all his talk, Fleck has nothing to show for his time in Minneapolis. His Gopher teams are a combined 3-12 in Big Ten play and rarely look like they belong on the same field against their Big Ten opponents. Don’t get me wrong. There is still time for Fleck to turn Minnesota into a winner, but this win shows that progress is not being made as quickly as Fleck’s demeanor would have you believe.
This win was good for Lovie as it provides proof-of-concept of what he wants to build at Illinois, while looking extremely bad for Fleck as it shows how far his Gophers are from being competitive in the Big Ten West — much less the Big Ten, in general.
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