CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — On a big Homecoming weekend, No. 24 Illinois was backed by the biggest crowd of the season at Memorial Stadium, and they sent the Illini faithful home happy.
Led behind the arm (and legs) of QB Tommy DeVito in his return, a career game from RB Chase Brown, and four field goals by kicker Fabrizio Pinton, Illinois cruised by Minnesota, 26-14.
Illinois, picking up its sixth win of the season, is now bowl eligible for the first time since 2019.
“Anytime your quarterback plays well, that’s a big deal,” said head coach Bret Bielema.
In Illinois’ first game as a ranked team in 11 years, there was some uncertainty coming in about the quarterback situation. Despite DeVito exiting the game early last weekend against Iowa, that didn't stop him from suiting up on Saturday.
“Tommy’s an incredibly tough kid,” Bielema said. “I had a feeling he was gonna get better in a hurry.”
It was advertised to be a low-scoring, defensive slugfest, but big plays from both offenses made the game much more competitive.
These big plays started very early, too, as Illinois (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten) finished a 75-yard opening drive with a 40-yard touchdown pass from DeVito to Brown on a wheel route where the Gophers left the tailback WIDE open.
“It was kind of a little trick play,” DeVito said. “Awesome play design by [offensive coordinator Barry Lunney].”
Highlighted by that early touchdown catch, Brown had himself a day. He picked up 180 yards on 41 rushes (yes, 41!) along with 53 receiving yards.
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win games,” Brown said.
DeVito sees his teammate’s insane stat line as another example of what he’s capable of.
“He can do it all,” DeVito said. “He makes the game so much easier.”
The early Brown touchdown made it seem like Illinois would be in control early against Minnesota (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) after an interception off QB Tanner Morgan led to an early 10-0 lead, but it really wouldn’t.
Minnesota would shortly answer with a touchdown of its own on a 9-yard Morgan run, ending the Illinois streak of 17+ quarters at Memorial Stadium without allowing a touchdown.
It wouldn’t be the only Gopher score either.
A 92-yard kickoff return set Minnesota up for an early, second-half touchdown — giving them the lead, 14-13.
With the first deficit Illinois had faced at Memorial Stadium since Week 2 against Virginia, the crowd fell silent. When it seemed like Minnesota had all the momentum, DeVito faced what was arguably the biggest drive of the afternoon.
DeVito led the offense down the field efficiently, ending in a 5-yard touchdown run of his own. This sub 2-minute drive gave the lead back to the Illini at 20-14 — the final points they would need to secure the win.
“We knew that we were going to win this game,” DeVito said. “We wanted to finish that game out strong, and we did.”
The Illini ended up tacking on two more field goals, but it wouldn’t make a difference. Ryan Walters’ defense made sure of that.
After giving up the explosive kick return, the Illini defense only allowed 57 total yards for the remainder of the game. They limited both Gopher quarterbacks to 38 passing yards and forced three interceptions.
“I’m so excited that we’re playing at this level,” Brown said. “We all expect to play at this level and continue to win games.”
Illinois has now won back-to-back games over Minnesota for the first time since 1994-95.
“They’re doing some things that nobody else has ever done,” Bielema said.
We just can’t say it enough: the Illini are bowl eligible. In seven games, they have already won more games than last season (5-7).
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
GUTSY PLAY CALLS: The Illini went 3-for-3 on fourth down conversions in the first half. Highlighted by two that were 5 and 6 yards long respectively, but only 13 points to show for them.
IT JUST MEANS ‘MO’: Minnesota RB Mo Ibrahim had a rush for 44 yards, which eventually led to Minnesota’s first touchdown of the game.
BLOCK IN THE BACK?: Minnesota kick returner Quentin Redding had a 92-yard return to open the second half (refs missed a block in the back). The next play resulted in a Mo Ibrahim touchdown, giving Minnesota its first (and only) lead of the game.
MORGAN EXITS: Minnesota QB Tanner Morgan had to exit the game with an injury in the 4th quarter with a 23-14 deficit. The injury brought in backup QB Athan Kaliakmanis. With him in, the Gophers did not score.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Kendall Smith literally steals the ball from Minnesota receiver Michael Brown-Stephens.
Tommy DeVito walks into the end zone.
Chase Brown has now eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing on the season.— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) October 15, 2022
It is the second time in his #Illini career he has rushed for over 1,000 yards.
He is the third running back in program in program history to have two 1,000-yard seasons.#HTTO
Chase Brown ties J.C. Caroline (1953) for the fastest Illini to reach 1,000 yards in a single season.— Illinois Football (@IlliniFootball) October 15, 2022
TWEET OF THE GAME
Tommy DeVito is already a top 3 Illini QB of my lifetime— Matty (@matt1all) October 15, 2022
people are asking: https://t.co/CZkHPGpceB— The (Ranked) Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) October 15, 2022
The Illini are on the bye next weekend.
They’ll be back in action Oct. 29 on the road against Nebraska.