CHAMPAIGN, Ill — Year five of the Lovie Smith era is not off to a hot start.
Coran Taylor’s first collegiate start was spoiled by Minnesota’s 41-14 rout of the Illini on Saturday afternoon in Champaign.
Illinois (0-3) was without 15 players due to injuries, positive Covid-19 tests and contact tracing, and Minnesota (1-2) exploited a depleted Illini team to net their first win of the year.
“Last week we lost but we didn’t lose like this,” Smith said. “We’re better than this.”
PJ Fleck’s squad out-gained Illinois 556-287 and that yardage discrepancy showed on the scoreboard.
“I thought they dominated us on both sides,” said head coach Lovie Smith.
Defensively, Jake Hansen showed up in a big way. The Illini recovered his tenth career forced fumble in the first quarter but could not cash in.
Devon Witherspoon added a fourth quarter pick, but the defense was constantly gashed all game long.
The Illini offense was lifeless most of the first half until Mike Epstein delivered a 63-yard run to set Illinois up in Minnesota territory. They cashed in a few plays later with the senior’s second score of the year, with 5:32 to go in the half.
Through the air, Lovie Smith’s squad was hardly able to muster a first down. On the ground, the Illini tallied a respectable 174 yards. Epstein had his first 100-yard rushing game since 2018.
How did it feel for the running back to overcome his injuries and eclipse 100 yards?
“It does feel good, but not much feels good after this game,” Epstein said. “I’d be very happy with a win right now.”
In Taylor’s first career start, rhythm was hard to come by. The sophomore finished the first half with just 40 total yards. He ended the game with just 106 yards in the air and 42 yards on the ground, one total touchdown — a 52-yard strike to Josh Imatorbhebhe.
Penalties were detrimental for this team, as they struggled to get off the field defensively and to move the chains offensively. Illinois finished with 12 penalties for 120 yards.
“We had some big penalties that were costly, all game,” Smith said.
On Minnesota’s side of the ball, the Illini had no answers to what the Golden Gophers ran all night.
Running the ball was the story for the Golden Gophers. Mohamed Ibrahim had over 100 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, and finished the game with over 200 yards and four scores for the second week in a row.
“Whenever you can run the football like that, it's going to be a long game.
“Everything that could’ve gone wrong, as far as playing the run, went wrong today,” Smith said.
Tanner Morgan earned his second career win against Illinois with 231 yards and a touchdown. On the receiving end of most of those passes was Rashod Bateman. The junior had 10 catches for 154 yards and caught the touchdown.
All of a sudden, the Illini are 0-3 for the first time since 1997, where the Illini finished the season winless.
Moments That Mattered
- Third times not the charm: The Illini defense struggled to get off the field. The Minnesota offense converted eight of 10 third downs, wearing out the Illini defense and keeping the Illinois offense sidelined.
- Fourth and goal from midfield: The Illini opened the second half with some strong running that led them inside Minnesota’s ten. A few plays, penalties and a fumble later and Illinois punted on fourth-and-goal — and momentum was lost.
- Jake Hansen’s first quarter forced fumble was the 10th of his career. That number ties him for the most forced fumbles in the FBS among active players, and third in Illini history all-time.
Mike Epstein's 63-yard run in the second quarter is the Illini's longest play of the season and the longest rush of Epstein's career.— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) November 7, 2020
You Gotta See This
- In a game that did not have many successful drives for Illinois, Mike Epstein had the Illini on his shoulders during their first scoring drive.
The Mike Epstein Drive. @Dat26Kid carries @IlliniFootball to its first TD of the afternoon: pic.twitter.com/0vqVbRoiIh— Illinois on BTN (@IllinoisOnBTN) November 7, 2020
Tweet Of The Game
The #Illini would have third-and-goal from the 48-yard line. That's the most Illinois thing of all-time.— Anthony Pasquale (@Ant_Pasquale3) November 7, 2020
Now a fourth-and-goal punt?
Quote(s) Of The Day:
- “It’s a long football season. We had, I think, lost three or four in a row last year. We came back, that’s the thing. We’re disappointed in what’s happened so far, but there’s a lot of football left to go.” — Lovie Smith
- “I’m the head football coach. Everything comes back to me,” Lovie Smith said. “And believe me we’ll do something about it.”
Next Saturday, the Illini travel to New Jersey to take on Rutgers at 11 a.m. on Big Ten Network.