MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Tanner Morgan saw the defense sink towards the line of scrimmage preparing to stop Minnesota’s surging rushing attack. The Gophers quarterback stepped back and connected with receiver Rashod Bateman for a 59-yard pass on the first play of the second half.
Minnesota got its running game to open up the field for Morgan, and the Gophers had the complementary offense they hoped for this season.
Rodney Smith ran for a career-best 211 yards and a touchdown, Shannon Brooks added 111 rushing yards and a touchdown in his second game back from injury and Minnesota totaled 332 yards on the ground against Illinois in a 40-17 win on Saturday afternoon.
Tanner Morgan was 9-of-17 passing for 155 yards and three touchdowns for the Gophers (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten), who have won seven straight games dating back to last season and are 5-0 for the first time since 2004.
“We want to be balanced,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. “I think the teams that can be balanced at any moment, and can control and sustain the balance, are going to be the most dangerous teams.”
The Gophers defense allowed just three points and held Illini running back Reggie Corbin, the third-leading rusher in the Big Ten, to 68 yards on 14 carries. Last season, Corbin ran for 213 yards in a win against Minnesota and Illinois rushed for 430 yards as a team.
“It’s crazy because it’s like the same team,” Corbin said. “I have no clue. I’m kind of in disbelief as well.”
The Illini (2-3, 0-2) scored two defensive touchdowns. Dele Harding returned an interception of Morgan for a touchdown in the first quarter for early lead and Milo Eifler returned a fumble for another score in the third after Jake Hansen stripped Morgan on a sack.
“Defensively, it’s about tackling better,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said of how the team can improve. “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. That’s what they did against us today.”
Smith helped the Gophers grab momentum in the second after a slow start by both teams. He had a season-long 64-yard run to set up the Gophers first touchdown.
“We knew we had to run the ball because of the weather,” Smith said of the 52-degree start with mist and rain in the air. “We had to show up and deliver.”
The Illini lost starting quarterback Brandon Peters in the first half after he hit the turf hard while being tackled. He walked off the field with assistance and was replaced by Matt Robinson, who was 15-of-29 passing for 125 yards.
Smith played the first two games last year before an injury sidelined him the rest of the way. Brooks played sparingly in his return last week after seeing action in just one game in 2018. Together, they rushed for 322 yards on Saturday.
The Gophers put together their best rushing game of the season as Smith rushed for the most yards for the school since Laurence Maroney had 215 in 2005. Minnesota rushed for more than 300 yards for the first time since tallying 409 yards against Nebraska in 2017.
“I don’t think any of us really know how hard it is to come back from what they’ve come through and come back from, unless you’ve been there,” Fleck said.
Illinois has lost three games in a row after wins against Akron and Connecticut, and the defense has struggled, in particular. Smith is in his fourth season as coach and the team is 11-29 under his leadership.
“It is a crossroads,” Smith said. “Whenever you’re coming off of two losses, it’s early in Big Ten play but 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.”
Illinois: Not being able to stop the run is a bad omen for continuing in on in the Big Ten. It’s the second straight game the Illini have allowed more than 300 yards rushing. Nebraska ran for 346 yards on Sept. 21. Lovie Smith’s defense has generated sacks (13th in FBS per game coming in) and turnovers (ninth in the FBS with 2.5 per game coming in). But if Illinois can’t stop the run, it’s going to be another long season.
Minnesota: The Gophers have taken advantage of back-to-back games against two of the Big Ten’s worst defenses in terms of yards allowed. The schedule also sets up nicely for Minnesota to continue their run, at least through October. The Gophers host Nebraska next week before going on the road at Rutgers. The month finishes with a home date with Maryland. If Minnesota is still undefeated come November, home games against No. 12 Penn State and No. 8 Wisconsin sandwich games at No. 14 Iowa and Northwestern.
Illinois: Returns home against Michigan on Oct. 12.
Minnesota: The Gophers host Nebraska On Oct. 12.