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Gophers defense exposed yet again in loss to Illinois

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck returned to his home state Saturday, Nov. 3, as a nine-point favorite, looking to produce his first Big Ten road win in front of friends and family at Memorial Stadium.

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Minnesota Golden Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan (2) is sacked during the second quarter against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium on Sunday, Nov. 3. Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck returned to his home state Saturday, Nov. 3, as a nine-point favorite, looking to produce his first Big Ten road win in front of friends and family at Memorial Stadium.

Instead, Fleck and defensive coordinator Robb Smith will return to Minnesota, seeking the shelter of their own homes after the Gophers defense continues an alarming trend of giving up enormous scoring plays.

It was bad enough for Minnesota after Illinois scored on two touchdown runs of 72 yards in the opening two drives, a 67-yard TD pass in the second quarter and a 30-yard TD pass in the third.

Then, Illini quarterback A.J. Bush casually escorted running back Reggie Corbin into the end zone on an all-too-easy and familiar 77-yard scoring run. At the end of the third quarter, it showed it really could get worse for Minnesota.

All told, the Gophers suffered 55-31 blowout loss to a previously reeling Illinois team, which lost its three previous Big Ten games by an average 32 points.

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Minnesota’s blowout defeat set a new high points allowed during Fleck and Smith’s year-plus tenure at Minnesota, nudging out the 53 points given up to Nebraska two weeks ago.  

The road woes Saturday were reminiscent of the 42-13 loss to Maryland and 53-28 defeat to Nebraska. The Terrapins had 315 rushing yards and the Cornhuskers 383.

The Gophers (4-5, 1-5 Big Ten) set a new low, allowing 430 rushing yards to the Illini. Granted, for all the struggles the Illini (4-5, 2-4) have had this year, their rushing offense came in ranked 23rd in the nation and third in the Big Ten.

As his team struggled, Fleck often remained stationary on the sideline with his hands on his knees. The Sugar Grove, Ill., native is now 0-7 on the road in the Big Ten. The Gophers defense has allowed more than 30 points in eight straight conference games dating back to the end of 2017.

Minnesota’s two long touchdown passes from Tanner Morgan to Rashod Bateman made the score look closer than the game was.

The Illini gashed the Gophers defense with a pair of stingingly similar and alarming 72-yard touchdown runs on the opening two drives. On their second play, Corbin went untouched through the middle of Minnesota’s defense. On their fourth play, running back Dre Brown also faced no resistance from the heart of the U’s defense.

Gophers were blocked or diving late in last-ditch attempts to make tackles as the Illini raced into the south end zone. On the back of those two plays, Minnesota allowed 207 yards in the first quarter, with a massive 14.7 yards per play.

Minnesota hung in the game with a pair of rushing touchdowns from Mohamed Ibrahim to make cut Illinois’ lead to 17-14 midway through the second quarter.

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But on the next drive, the Gophers pass defense were cut up. Illinios quarterback AJ Bush threw short to Ricky Smalling, who broke cornerback Terell Smith’s tackle and raced down the sideline.

Gophers safety Jacob Huff took a poor pursuit angle, allowing Smalling to cutback, while safety Jordan Howden and linebacker Thomas Barber couldn’t catch Smalling from behind.

Trailing 24-14, the Gophers cornerback Coney Durr’s interception gave Minnesota at the ball. On the next play,  Rashod Bateman appeared to fumble after a catch across the middle, with Illini linebacker Del’Shawn Phillipsr returning it 58 yards for a touchdown.

But the backbreaking play was called back after an official review decided Bateman didn’t possess the ball. The U took the massive break and added a Emmit Carpenter field goal to stem momentum before the half. Instead of leading 31-14, the U only trailed 24-17.   

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