Here are the quick hits and grades for both teams following Saturday's 40-17 loss for Illinois on the road at Minnesota.
MINNEAPOLIS — Illinois football treated Saturday afternoon’s game at Minnesota as a crossroads moment of its season.
An opportunity to build some confidence on the road. Get its season back on track after two home losses by a combined seven points.
Approaching that crossroads, Illinois didn’t follow the road less taken. At least not when it comes to the Lovie Smith era. What happened during a 40-17 Minnesota win in front of a rain-soaked crowd of 39,341 at TCF Bank Stadium was just more of the same.
All the familiar Illinois defensive issues cropped up against Minnesota. The offense also took a serious step backward. And the Gophers (5-0) stayed unbeaten with a victory that puts the Illini (2-3) further on the wrong side of the crossroads they faced heading into the weekend.
“It is a crossroads,” Smith said. “Whenever you’re coming off two losses and it’s early in Big Ten play, it is a crossroads game, but not an all-is-lost game. When you’re playing your fifth game of the season, there’s a lot of football left to go.”
Smith now stands at 11-30 not quite halfway through his fourth season at Illinois. It’s a near record in futility. Only Jim Valek reached 30 losses faster among the 24 other coaches in Illini history. Valek posted an 8-32 record in four seasons from 1967-70 in the aftermath of the slush fund.
So where does Smith stand with the midway point of his fourth season coming next Saturday in an 11 a.m. kickoff against 19th-ranked Michigan?
“This year I was hoping things would be farther along,” Smith said. “I’m not going too much farther back. That doesn’t have a whole lot to do with it. Right now we have one more loss than win, so there’s time. This season, there’s a lot to go in it.
“There’s things we have to do better — we have to do differently. We can’t stay status quo with where we are right now. It’s a game of adjustments from week to week. It’s our move now to see how we’re going to adjust to what’s happened with us the last three times we’ve lost.”
For now, though, there’s disappointment. That was etched on the faces of all of the players after the game. The first two losses of the now-three-game losing streak came by a combined seven points. Losing by 23 points to the Gophers stung.
“I don’t know in what world you score two defensive touchdowns and lose a game,” redshirt junior linebacker Jake Hansen said. Senior linebacker Dele Harding staked Illinois to a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter with a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown. Redshirt junior linebacker Milo Eifler scooped and returned a fumble 7 yards late in the third quarter after a Hansen strip sack on Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan to trim the Illini deficit to 30-17.
“I am surprised,” Hansen continued about a program seemingly stuck in place. “Part of that is people not holding each other accountable. That starts with me. Blame me. Don’t rip apart the rest of those guys.”
Illinois’ road doesn’t get any easier with Michigan coming to Champaign next Saturday for the first time since 2011. Then No. 8 Wisconsin on Oct. 19, in a Top 25 two-fer for the Illini in back-to-back weeks.
Smith is glad Illinois is at least back at Memorial Stadium the next two weeks.
“Once you play disappointing ball, you want to come back home,” he said. “For our fans, we have two big games coming up. It’s enough to think one at a time — Michigan coming into town. We’re going to heal up the best we can and get ready to play a good Michigan team.”
The key to getting back on track? It’s just playing better football, according to Smith.
“It is as simple as that,” he said. “Defensively, it’s about tackling better. Offensively, we need to be able to be who we are, and that’s a running football team, and when we get opportunities to hit passes, we need to do that.”
Illinois didn’t do enough of any of that against Minnesota. The Gophers’ gouged the Illini defense on the ground, racking up 332 rushing yards. Offensively, Illinois couldn’t get much going after quarterback Brandon Peters went down with an undisclosed injury and exited the game in the first half, not returning.
“It’s not going to be perfect every time,” Harding said. “When it’s constant and over and over, that’s when it becomes a definite problem and disheartening. We’re just looking at next week’s game against Michigan and try to leave this behind. We’re dialing in and looking to next week’s game. We can’t let this bring the rest of the season down.”
Redshirt senior running back Reggie Corbin, who rushed for a team-high 68 yards on 14 carries, said he wouldn’t need to provide much motivation for the Illini heading into the Michigan game. Three straight losses takes care of that.
“They know how to keep fighting,” Corbin said of his teammates. “I know they’ll follow the leaders on the team. All we can do is put our head down and go to work.”