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Gophers football’s 2021 loss to Bowling Green stung, but defeat to Illinois was bigger blow

Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck credited how Illinois plays resembled first-year head coach Bret Bielema’s personality.

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INDIANAPOLIS — Two words — “Bowling Green” — will live in infamy for the Gophers football program and its fans after Minnesota entered last September’s game against the struggling Mid-American Conference program as a 31-point favorite and exited with a 14-10 defeat.

That was bad. But perhaps worse was the Gopher’s performance in November against an Illinois team that entered the game 3-6. A 14-point favorite, Minnesota lost 14-6 on its home field. With Minnesota finishing one win behind Big Ten West Division champion Iowa last season and missing out on the conference title game, the loss to Illinois had much larger ramifications.

Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck credited how Illinois plays resembled first-year head coach Bret Bielema’s personality.

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PJ Fleck

“Tough,” Fleck said Tuesday at Big Ten Media Days. “They grind it out. They play with high energy. They think they can beat anybody, anytime, anywhere. That’s a credit to Bret. It’s good to have him back in the league, but they are a really tough football team. They got us last year. (They) had a great scheme, great plan for us. We’ve got to be better.”

After Bielema was hired in December 2020, he started watching film on Big Ten opponents. He said one Minnesota offensive play stood out: a fumble along a sideline that a Gophers player hit the ball out of bounds, knowing that effort would mean U kept possession.

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“What I saw constantly out of Minnesota’s program is the football intelligence, which a lot of kids don’t have,” Bielema said Wednesday inside Lucas Oil Stadium. “They have to be taught that. I really respect the way his team plays. P.J. and I are completely different people, right, but I knew and I told our guys all year and in the week of preparation going into it, this is going to be a tough, physical football team.”

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The Gophers defense had been allowing only 93 rushing yards per game coming to the Illinois game but gave up 93 to Illinois in the first quarter alone. Illinois had success with its “barge” formation, using extra offensive linemen.

Minnesota averaged only 2.5 yards per rush against Illinois. Quarterback Tanner Morgan had a pass tipped and intercepted on the first drive. He scored a rushing touchdown — the Gophers’ only points — with five minutes left in the game and had a Hail Mary to Dylan Wright picked off on the last drive. The U was minus-two in turnover margin.

“We needed to take advantage of our opportunities,” Bielema said. “That is the way it played out. Those games, you definitely have to earn your victory against Minnesota.”

Illinois finished 5-7 in Bielema’s first season last fall. They knocked off seventh-ranked Penn State and then lost at home to Rutgers before coming to Minnesota. They also beat Charlotte, Nebraska in the season opener and Northwestern in the finale.

Bielema is 8-0 against the Gophers, including 7-0 during his tenure at Wisconsin from 2006-12.

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