Minnesota turns turnovers into points, downs Illinois 40-17

Published 5:11 pm Saturday, October 29, 2016

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — On a windy Illinois afternoon that made passing an adventure, Minnesota knew it would need to run the ball if it wanted to pocket a win.

But the Golden Gophers figured they might have to run a little farther than they did to beat the Illinois.

A pair of early Illinois turnovers and a short punt gave Minnesota the ball at the Illinois 49-, 20- and 9-yard lines, and the Gophers turned each into a touchdown on the way to a 40-17 win.

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Rodney Smith did the bulk of the damage, rushing for 100 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Shannon Brooks added 59 yards and a score on a dozen carries.

Smith’s first touchdown was a 20-yard burst up the middle with 2:16 left in the first quarter, giving Minnesota (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) the lead for good at 14-7. It followed a fumbled punt by Illinois’ Darius Mosely, recovered by Antione Winfield Jr. at the 20.

“We love to see that because we’re pretty good in the red zone,” said Brooks, who added that those turnovers built momentum for Minnesota and robbed Illinois of energy. “Yeah, definitely. That’s a stab, a stab in the back. That hurts.”

The turnovers, Illinois coach Lovie Smith said, swung the game hard and early for Minnesota.

“It’s hard to win the football game when you start like that,” Smith said. “Those turnovers put us in a hole.”

Jeff George Jr., Illinois’ (2-6, 1-4) third-string quarterback and the son of Illini legend and longtime NFL quarterback Jeff George, started his second straight game and went 16-34 for 156 yards and a touchdown.

Illinois starter Wes Lunt suited up but sat out his third straight game with a back injury. Second-string quarterback Chayce Crouch, who injured a shoulder in a win over Rutgers two weeks ago, is out for the season after having surgery Monday, Smith confirmed.

Illinois receiver Malik Turner left the field on a stretcher in the first half after a hit by Minnesota safety Duke McGhee. Turner was taken to a local hospital but was back in the locker room before the end of the game, Smith said, though further information about his injury was not available.

“It was terrifying. It was emotional, especially with a kid like that who works so hard, to see a tragic injury like that,” Smith said.

McGhee was flagged for targeting and ejected from the game.