BY CHAD DARE
The difference between winning and losing can be as little as 1 yard.
On Saturday afternoon, those final 3 feet proved to be the difference between a field goal and touchdown for the Illinois Fighting Illini.
And while Illinois ran 51 more plays in the Big Ten contest against the Minnesota Golden Gophers, that one missed opportunity set the tone for 12th straight conference loss for the Fighting Illini.
Minnesota’s Donnell Kirkwood ran for 152 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Golden Gophers to bowl eligibility with a 17-3 win over the Fighting Illini.
“When you are scoring just 3 points, that’s not going to cut it in any league,” said Illinois coach Tim Beckman. “I haven’t been around losing. It’s been tough. You have to find ways to motivate.”
Getting a touchdown on the game’s opening drive would have been the perfect motivation for Illinois, which fell to 2-8 overall with its seventh straight loss and the Fighting Illini are 0-6 in the league play.
“They all hurt,” Beckman said. “No one wants to freaking lose.”
And the ultimate frustration for Beckman came on that opening drive. The Illini started from its own 9-yard line and after a 16-yard run by Josh Ferguson on first down, they went for a trick play. A flea flicker pass from Nathan Scheelhaase to Spencer Harris covered 49 yards, setting up Illinois on the Minnesota 26.
“From watching film, we knew that was a play we could run against them,” Illinois senior wide receiver Ryan Lankford said. “After we got that first down, we knew we were going to run it.”
Scheelhaase admitted that he nearly underthrew Harris on that play, and on the next one, he threw a pass over a wide-open Jon Davis. It appeared that Davis could have walked into the end zone if the pass was on the mark.
“Early in that game, we had a couple opportunities to take big strikes, to take those big hits,” Beckman said. “We overthrow a wide-open receiver that is square in the middle of the football field. We overthrow him and we don’t get the points out of that.
“Things like that, you have to make those plays to be successful. Our players are not making those plays.”
Even after that miscue, the Illini were still able to get the ball down to the Gophers’ 1-yard line. But rushing attempts by Donovonn Young, who had a team-high 42 yards, and Scheelhaase resulted in a loss of 1 yard.
“We’ve got to come off the football and bloody some mouths and get us a yard when we need a yard,” Beckman said. “I mean, we can’t put the ball on the 1-yard line for two downs and not get the ball in the end zone.
“This is college football, come off the football, regardless of who is running, Donovonn Young or Nathan Scheelhaase, and get that one yard.”
While Beckman didn’t blame anyone specifically for the offensive miscues, it was quite obvious that he expects more from his offensive linemen.
“We just need to knock the frickenin’ crap out of someone,” said Beckman during his radio interview, implying that Illinois needs more practice in chutes, which is a training tool for offensive and defensive linemen. “It’s more than Nathan. It’s the group as a whole.”
Illinois had two other chances to score in the first half, driving the ball inside of the Minnesota 35 but a fumbled snap after a costly holding penalty, and a sack on a third down-and-4 play kept the Illini with just three points in the first half.
“We have to finish better – three points are not going to work. We can’t win games like that,” Lankford said. “Our biggest problem in penalties and negative plays, I know I had a holding call on that one drive.
“Coach (Billy) Gonzales shows us all of the time statistics on the top offensive teams, and they don’t get behind the sticks.”
Even with those missed chances, Illinois still found itself tied with Minnesota, 3-3, at halftime.
“Defensively, I thought we played better,” Beckman said. “I thought we tackled much better than we did the week before in Columbus.”
The Illini defense, which has allowed 31 or more points in six straight games coming into Saturday, gave up just 309 yards of total offense — 145 of those in the first half.
“We were lot more discipline and we played with a lot of emotion. It showed up, but we have to do a better job of finishing ourselves,” Illinois senior defensive end Michael Buchanan said. “We’re not getting W’s on the board, I do feel like we are playing better as a team. The last couple of weeks, we have played better, but we just haven’t finished games.
“When we lose, we lose as a team.”
Minnesota finally found the end zone with 2 minutes, 31 seconds left in the third quarter on Kirkwood’s 3-yard touchdown run.
Illinois had two possessions in the fourth quarter to tie the game with a touchdown. The first ended on downs when Scheelhaase had back-to-back incompletions from the Minnesota 35 and the second resulted in a Scheelhaase fumble on a quarterback sneak attempt on a third-and-1 at the Illinois 29.
“That’s just Nathan trying to make a play,” Beckman said. “But that’s not a smart play. That’s not how he is taught to do it. He knew as soon as he came to the sideline … that is something that is taught at Camp Rantoul. We do not reach the football out to make a play.”
Minnesota capitalized on the turnover with Kirkwood’s second touchdown run of the game as the Golden Gophers improve to 6-4 overall and 2-4 in the conference. With the win, Minnesota is eligible for a bowl berth.
“I think the biggest thing is that I’m happy for our kids and certainly our seniors,” Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. “We found a way to get it done today.
“We played old-fashion football. We ran the ball, played great defense and we didn’t turn it over.”
The Illini will honor their seniors next Saturday in the final home game of the season when Illinois hosts the Purdue Boilermakers, a 27-24 winner over Iowa on Saturday, for a 2:30 p.m. contest at Memorial Stadium.