Published November 26, 2011
MINNEAPOLIS – MarQueis Gray rushed for 167 yards and two touchdowns and threw for another score, guiding Minnesota past backsliding Illinois 27-7 on Saturday in the season finale and sending the Fighting Illini to their sixth straight defeat.
Gray took off 27 times to break the single-season rushing record for a Golden Gophers quarterback, giving him 966 yards. Billy Cockerham had 831 yards rushing in 1999.
Troy Pollard's 11-yard touchdown run in the third quarter was the only highlight for the Illini (6-6, 2-6 Big Ten), who wasted their best start in 60 years and put coach Ron Zook's job in obvious danger. Nathan Scheelhaase, who was 4 for 6 for 15 yards in a time share with Reilly O'Toole, lost a costly fumble on one of his five sacks.
Illinois held an opponent under 100 yards passing for the fifth time this season -- Gray went 7 for 14 for 85 yards -- but couldn't stop him from scrambling and converting critical first downs. Jordan Wettstein kicked field goals of 43 and 51 yards for the Gophers (3-9, 2-6), who have won nine of their last 12 games against the Illini.
They held Illinois to 18 yards on 23 plays in the first half and a season-low 160 yards on 59 plays for the game, by far the best performance of the year for a defense playing with a lot more speed and confidence than during that 58-0 loss at Michigan on Oct. 1.
This was the first time Minnesota led from start to finish since winning 17-6 at Purdue on Oct. 25, 2008. The Gophers posted their largest margin of victory since beating Florida Atlantic 37-3 on Sept. 20, 2008, and their biggest in a conference game since a 63-26 win over Indiana on Nov. 4, 2006.
They appeared to want this one more than the Illini, who looked defeated and lethargic except for a first-down run by freshman O'Toole, who jumped up and pumped his fist to fire up the sideline in the third quarter. That drive was extended by a successful fake-punt run by Jay Prosch and capped by Pollard's score, but the Gophers were unfazed.
They danced on the sideline between the third and fourth quarters and kept up their sure tackling throughout the final minutes. The outcome -- and perhaps Zook's dismissal -- was sealed when sixth-year senior free safety Kim Royston sacked Scheelhaase for a 7-yard loss on fourth-and-goal to give the Gophers the ball back at the 5-minute mark.
The Gophers punted on their first four possessions, but they got their first break early in the second quarter when Scheelhaase was sacked and stripped of the ball by Ra'Shede Hageman. Michael Amaefula recovered at the 16-yard line, and Gray slipped out of Steve Hull's tackle on the next play on his way to an easy touchdown run.
Gray owned the next drive, too, finding Da'Jon McKnight for a pair of first downs and a wide-open John Rabe from 8 yards out on third down to stretch the lead to 14-0. Wettstein, the walk-on who took over four games ago when Chris Hawthorne got hurt, nailed a couple of kicks before the end of the half, and the Gophers took a 20-point lead to the locker room.
They padded it on their first possession of the third quarter after a 21-yard punt by Ryan Lankford gave them the ball at their 43. Gray finished the possession with a 14-yard touchdown run, putting a slick juke on DeJazz Woods at the line of scrimmage to jog into the end zone untouched.
The Illini, who beat Baylor in the Texas Bowl last year, have never won bowl games in consecutive seasons. There's no guarantee they'll get invited this time, with more eligible Big Ten teams than assigned slots.
Zook, 57, is 34-51 in seven seasons, a winning percentage that ranks 11th among the 13 Illini coaches who've coached more than one season.