Gophers End Season on a High Note

Posted: November 29, 2011 by Kodi in Gopher Redemption, NCAA

The Gophers Beat the Fighting Illini to bring their win total to 3 games for the year

Although Minnesota has had what many would see as a disappointing season there are things to look forward to

but first we must say goodbye to some highly talent senior players . . . 

The Golden Gophers football team marched onto the field at TCF Bank Stadium to wrap up their disappointing 2011 season. The Gophers had won just 2 games coming into this battle with Illinois, which was their 65th meeting of all-time. Minnesota leads this series as well with a 33-28-3 record coming into the game, meaning at some point the Gophers actually did win football games. They have a stellar 19-11-1 record at home against the Fighting Illini but the Gophers did lose their last match at home 35-32 in 2009.

Minnesota however made up for that loss last year when they defeated Illinois in Champagne 38-34 and went on to beat Iowa at home a week later to wrap up the season. Minnesota already beat Iowa at home this season for one of their 2 wins and hoped to be the first home team to win a game in the Illinois series for the first time in 5 years. With Thanksgiving festivities wrapping up just a few days earlier Gophers Head Coach Jerry Kill had Christmas on his mind, just like all those corporations who fed on the frenzy of Black Friday.

“If I could have a Christmas list. . . I’d love to see those seniors get a win on Saturday. I really would, because they’ve been through a whole lot throughout the program, and I certainly would like to see [a victory] for those kids” Kill said in his mid-week press conference. A win wouldn’t hurt Kills chances at recruiting during the off-season either but he knows it’s not just going to be handed to them. He challenged the underclassmen, “you need to play your guts out this week. We need to send these kids out on a good note”

Illinois started off the season extremely hot winning their first 6 games but have lost 5 straight coming into the season finale with the Gophers. We have seen Minnesota come out extremely slow in the first halves of games but this time it was Illinois who came out like molasses. Minnesota held Illinois to just 18 yards on 23 plays in the first half, easily their best performance of the season. The Gophers recorded a season high 5 sacks in the game and limited the Illini to just 160 total yards.

Minnesota scored when QB MarQueis Gray ran it in from 16 yards out and the Gophers had a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish early in the 2nd quarter. Gray took it up the middle and literally ran through an Illinois LB before putting his team up 7-0. Their next drive Minnesota had great field position and scored in just 7 plays when Gray hooked up with TE John Rabe for a 8 yard TD pass. The Gophers would add two field goals by K Jordan Wettstein and scored a season high 20 points in the 2nd quarter and their defense had shut out Illinois’ offense.

Senior Wettstein hit a 43 yarder before coming back and hitting a 51 yard field goal in the second quarter, which was the first 50+ yard FG since K Joel Monroe made one in 2007. The Gophers went into halftime after what may have been their best football all season long and Jerry Kill may just get his Christmas wish.

The Gophers would extend their lead to 27-0 midway through the 3rd quarter when Gray would run in his 2nd TD of the day and 3rd overall while giving the Gophers their biggest lead of the season. Gray would finish the game 7-14 for 85 yards and the TD but rushed the ball 27 times for 167 yards and the 2 TDs. It is the first time all year that the Gophers never trailed during the game, which hasn’t happened in their last 11 wins and also snapped a streak of 41 games in which they trailed at some point.

Gray finished the season 108-213 with 1495 passing yards, including a season long 64 yard pass, 8 TDs, 8 INTs and sacked 17 times. He rushed the ball 198 times for 953 yards and 6 TDs with a long of 37 yards and an average of 4.8 ypc. Gray set the rushing record for a QB in a single season after surpassing Billy Cockerham’s 831 yard performance of 1999. Gray had accumulated over 100 yards on the ground in 4 separate games this season.

Gray’s favorite target in the passing game was WR DaJon McKnight who had better statistics than the next 3 WRs combined. The senior WR hauled in 4 catches for 46 yards including a 16 yarder in his final game as a Golden Gopher. That brought his season total to 51 catches for 760 yards, including a long of 64, all of which are career highs, with 4 TDs. He did pull in 3 TDs in one game against a tough Michigan State team, something he did against Penn State in 2010. McKnight ended his career with 119 catches for 1859 yards and 15 TDs, 10 of which came in 2010. The Gophers are going to miss McKnight but nobody will miss him more than MarQueis Gray.

Too bad for Q the Gophers are also losing senior RB Duane Bennett who had a positive impact all over the field as the young man is also moving on. Bennett had 23 carries for 57 yards in the game against Illinois but he was also the last person to touch the ball on the Gophers final drive. Bennett ran the ball 166 times for 639 yards, both career highs, and 3 TDs. Although let’s not forget the young man also blocked a punt earlier in the year and was able to return it for a TD bringing his season total to 4. Bennett rushed the ball 526 times for 2126 yards and 15 TDs and ended his Minnesota career with a yards per carry average above 4.

Things couldn’t have worked out much better for senior DB Kim Royston either. Royston, a Minneapolis native, transferred to the U of M in 2007 and sat out the 2008 season before playing all of 2009 and 2011. Royston lost his 2010 season after breaking his leg in 2009 but had a memorable moment finishing his college football career by sacking Illinois QB Nate Scheelhaase in the red-zone on the Illini’s final possession of the game. Royston was part of the Gophers incredible defensive effort and had 13 tackles, 8 solo, in his effort against Illinois, marking the 8th time this season he has double digit tackles. He ended the 2011 season with 124 total tackles, 72 solo, the 1 sack and a single interception that came in a loss against Northwestern.

It was also the final game for MLB Gary Tinsley who recorded 6 tackles, 5 solo and one of the Gophers season high 5 sacks on Scheelhaase. Tinsley finished the season with 4 total sacks, a career high, 87 tackles, 43 solo and was the leader of the defensive unit on the field. Minnesota is going to miss a lot of their seniors just as many teams do but Jerry Kill will have a lot of pressure on him to replace McKnight, Bennett, Royston and Tinsley especially.

Kill knows who’s support he needs and he expounded on his support from Gopher Nation through a difficult season. “The students have been tremendous to me since I came here – everybody has. People in the state of Minnesota, the students, have all been great to my family and I and I’m a little bit disappointed that we haven’t delivered more. That’s our job and we understand that” Kill said in his final post-game conference. He continued “The students have been great, and again, we have to put a product out there like we played today and do that every week, then we won’t have to worry about anything. We’ll have great student support like we’ve had all year, and it’ll get better if we continue to put a good product out there. The support’s been great, we just have to continue improving our football game. We all know winning solves a lot of problems”.

Kill finished by saying “I can tell you that. Our goal is going to be set high. I’m not going to tell you (those goals) today because I haven’t talked to our team and all that. But we’ll be better and we’ll move it forward.  I believe that.  And I think we have in some aspects, and I’m disappointed we haven’t won a couple more games. But I’ll be disappointed if we don’t move it forward . . . I’ve got high standards.” I like the way that Kill has faced adversity all season long and I think that having a real football coach will high improve our recruiting classes in the years coming. Next season feels like a long ways away but spring practice is just a few months ahead of us.

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