Football: Illini defense too much for frustrated Gophers
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Terry Hawthorne was recruited to Illinois as one of the top prep receivers in the country. His heart is on offense, and he hopes to play there one day.
With the way he has played the last two weeks on defense, Hawthorne may have a heck of a time getting over to the other side of the ball anytime soon.
Hawthorne returned an interception for a touchdown and Clay Nurse had four of Illinois' seven sacks to lead the Illini to a 35-32 victory over Minnesota on Saturday.
"I told the coaches that if he goes back to receiver, I'm going to have a big problem," Nurse said with a smile. "He's a tremendous talent."
Jacob Charest threw for 185 yards and a touchdown after replacing Juice Williams, who left in the first quarter with an injured left ankle. Illinois (3-6, 2-5 Big Ten) led 28-7 at halftime.
Jon Hoese scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns for Minnesota (5-5, 3-4). Gophers linebacker Keanon Cooper blocked a punt that Ben Kuznia scooped up for a score to pull Minnesota within three points with 3 minutes to play.
The ensuing onside kick went out of bounds, and the Gophers couldn't overcome a dreadful first half from quarterback Adam Weber.
After throwing for 416 yards and five TDs in a breakout game against Michigan State last week, Weber completed 5 of 17 passes for 74 yards with a fumble and the interception returned for a score in the first half against Illinois. He finished 14 of 30 for 221 yards.
"I'm more frustrated in myself than I think the crowd is," said Weber, who was booed throughout. "I can't boo myself. The fans demand a great performance, great offense, and I don't blame them."
The blunders, coupled with a furious pass rush and great coverage from the secondary, helped Illinois compensate for the loss of Williams.
It's been a long and difficult senior season for Williams, who has never been able to recapture the magic that helped him lead the Illini to the Rose Bowl his sophomore year. He finally had a breakout game last week with 220 total yards in a surprisingly easy win over Michigan and looked sharp early against Minnesota.
He completed all five of his passes, including a 22-yard TD pass to Jeff Cumberland on the opening drive to get the Illini rolling. But he injured his left ankle and fumbled during a run later in the first quarter and watched the rest of the game on crutches from the sideline.
Coach Ron Zook said it was just a sprain and that the crutches were only precautionary.
Weber probably wishes he could have joined him.
The Gophers quarterback also broke out of a season-long slump last week in a win over Michigan State.
He followed that with a brutal first half against Illinois, missing several wide-open receivers and taking too many sacks after not getting rid of the ball quickly enough.
"It's a heartbreaking loss for our football team," Minnesota coach Tim Brewster said. "We did not play very well in the first 30 minutes of the game."
Weber fumbled in Illinois territory and telegraphed a throw to Hoese near the sideline in the first quarter.
Hawthorne, who chased down Michigan receiver Roy Roundtree and prevented a touchdown last week, read Weber's eyes and stepped in front of the pass. The freshman, who was making his second straight start at cornerback, returned the interception 44 yards for a score and a 14-0 lead going into the second quarter.
"It feels good," said Hawthorne, who also played defensive back in high school and returned four interceptions for touchdowns at East St. Louis High School. "I've said all along that all I needed was an opportunity."
Minnesota cut the lead to 28-25 on Hoese's second score of the game in the fourth. But Charest threw a 4-yard TD pass to Arrelious Benn on the next possession.
Now the Illini have won two in a row after starting the season 1-6.
"This definitely puts some more wind beneath our sails," Charest said. "We came out last week and had a big week against Michigan and people thought that might have been a fluke. Some of us were probably thinking that. Now this proves we're a good team and we're coming into our own."