MINNEAPOLIS — Using just two different plays, Minnesota marched down the field midway through the fourth quarter against Illinois on Saturday. Kobe McCrary carried the ball six times. Rodney Smith ran five times during a grinding, 12-play drive.
The Gophers finally stuck with the run and ran over the young Illini.
McCrary ran for 153 yards and the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, and Smith added 103 yards rushing for Minnesota as the Gophers beat Illinois 24-17.
Linebacker Jon Celestin returned an interception for a touchdown in the fourth to provide the winning margin for Minnesota (4-3, 1-3 Big Ten). The Gophers ran for 292 yards as a team and held the Illini (2-5, 0-4) to 282 total yards.
"I was really proud of how Kobe put people on his shoulders, literally," Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. "That last touchdown, that's all want-to, heart, grit, toughness and he finished the drive.
"That was an impressive drive by our offense. We only ran two plays and we just went right down the field. That was a statement for me that, 'OK, we need to go back to who we are.'"
With 10:06 remaining in the game, the Gophers went 75 yards in 12 plays, all runs, and went ahead 17-10 on McCrary's 4-yard touchdown run. Filling in for an injured Shannon Brooks as part of Minnesota's split backfield, McCrary set a career-high with 24 carries.
The senior back entered the game with just 115 yards rushing on the season; 107 coming when he filled in for Brooks in the third game of the year.
"My mindset was to make sure the running backs didn't skip a beat," McCrary said. "I knew I had to step in and fill his role. We came in the game and we had to dominate the line of scrimmage. We had to run the ball. Coach got me prepared, so I just ran hard like I did."
Illinois sophomore quarterback Jeff George Jr. was 18-of-23 passing for 128 yards with a late touchdown pass to freshman receiver Ricky Smalling. Freshman running back Ra'Von Bonner had 18 carries for 57 yards and a touchdown.
The Illini scored 10 points off turnovers, creating three on the day and finishing a plus-1 in turnover-margin.
"I think we had three takeaways and whenever you can take the ball away it's a good thing," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "I thought the defense did some good things but the way we started, and the drive play for them to go up seven, is disappointing."
Illinois: A big missed opportunity on Saturday leaves Illinois still looking for its first Big Ten victory and backup quarterback Cam Thomas became the 21st true freshman to play for the Illini this season. The least experienced team in college football with 14 true freshmen starters, Illinois is simply learning on the job this season.
"By playing two, we felt like we needed more at the quarterback position and we felt like both guys could give us something," Smith said. "In the end with our passing game, where we are right now, we thought Jeff would give us the better option. But normal down and distance, we wanted to get Cam some reps and see what he can do."
The schedule does provide a chance to get a conference win at some point, with a road game at Purdue and home games against Indiana and Northwestern. But it won't be easy for a team so green and without an offensive identity.
Minnesota: The up-and-down nature of the Gophers' running game continues, but perhaps they found something to build on. Minnesota had twice been held under 100 yards rushing as a team in three Big Ten games.
Despite Brooks missing the game with an injury, McCrary and Smith both rushed for over 100 yards and the Gophers had the two-headed rushing attack they had last season when they won nine games under former coach Tracy Claeys.
After serving as a homecoming opponent for the Gophers, the Illini return home next Saturday for their homecoming against No. 5 Wisconsin (7-0, 4-0).