MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – Western Illinois held the lead late in the third quarter, but three unanswered touchdowns were the difference for the Minnesota Golden Gophers in a 29-12 decision Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. The Leathernecks suffered their first defeat of the season (2-1 overall) while the Gophers improved to 3-0.
Western provided drama as it struck first late in the opening quarter. Nikko Watson picked up a first down on 3rd-and-1, then Trenton Norvell eventually completed a 10-yard pass to Fredson Salomon to move the chains again.
Consecutive runs by J.C. Baker of 15 and 29 yards, the latter leaving him inches from the goal line, set up 1st-and-goal. The Gophers stopped Western on three straight plays. Coming out of a timeout, Norvell used a play fake and found Mason Howington in the endzone for a score to cap the 13-play, 77-yard drive that consumed 6:21.
The Gophers used the running and throwing from back-up quarterback Mitch Leidner to take the lead with just over four minutes before halftime. Minnesota picked up a key 4th-and-1 on Western’s 16 and capped the scoring drive on a Rodrick William’s touchdown run from a yard out. The point after put Minnesota ahead 7-6.
Western took its second possession of the third quarter into the endzone. Norvell hit Kyle Hammonds, appearing for the first time in the game, out of the backfield on the first play of the drive and he raced 65 yards into the Minnesota redzone. Two plays later Norvell went for the corner of the endzone and Lance Lenoir, Jr. battled for the ball and came away with his first collegiate touchdown, an 11-yard grab. Nathan Knuffman’s extra point was blocked keeping the score 12-7.
The Gophers marched right down the field, getting into the redzone. However, Leidner was stripped by David McDaniel and Kevin Kintzel recovered in the endzone. The junior linebacker tried returning the ball but was stopped at the one. Western went 3-and-out on the drive. Following a 17-yard punt, Minnesota took over on the Western 25. The Gophers needed six plays to score, capped by a 2-yard run from David Cobb. The successful 2-point conversion put the Gophers ahead 15-12 with 1:22 left in the third quarter.
After the Leathernecks went 3-and-out again, the Gophers took over near midfield. They covered 53 yards and scored on Cobb’s 3-yard run for a 22-12 lead with 11:32 left in the game. On their ensuing drive, Minnesota used a big punt return to get to the Western 37. Williams broke through the right side on the first play for his second TD of the game and eventual final margin.
Western was held to 23 yards in the final quarter, gaining 230 in the game, while holding Minnesota to 337. The Gophers entered the game 15th nationally averaging 47.5 points, but Western held UM to well below the 51 points it scored against UNLV and 44 at New Mexico State during the first two weeks.
Norvell and the offense played turnover-free ball again as the redshirt-freshman quarterback completed 11-of-23 passes for 162 yards and the two TDs. His two touchdown passes gave Western a total of 13 TDs this year in three games, already surpassing last year’s total of 11 in 11 games.
Baker led the rushing attack with 50 yards on seven attempts. Lenoir caught a game-high five passes for 54 yards. Hi-C Scott and Fredson Salomon caught two passes each, totaling 22 and 20 yards, respectively.
Making his first appearance this year, last year’s leading tackler J.J. Raffelson led the defense with 11 stops. Jonathon Rollins added 10 tackles, Devon Butler made a career-high nine stops and Kintzel ended with eight along with two pass break-ups and the sack.
Cobb finished with 82 rushing yards and Williams added 56. Leidner had 64 on the ground while completing 7-of-8 passes for 105 yards. Three Gophers made six tackles and Theiren Cockran recorded two of the team’s three sacks.
The Leathernecks conclude a two-game road trip next Saturday (Sept. 21) when they travel to UNLV. Kickoff against the Rebels is scheduled for 8 p.m. central.
GAME NOTES: Howington had just three catches in his career prior to the TD catch… Kintzel recovered the first fumble of his career while McDaniel forced the first of his career… Raffelson recorded his sixth game of 10-plus tackles in 12 career contests… Knuffman averaged 37.9 yards on his four punts… Antoine Ford finished with 42 yards on his three returns, including the 33-yarder that was the second-longest of his career… Western committed only five penalties for 20 yards while Minnesota committed two during the fourth quarter for 10 yards… The last time Western went three games without committing a turnover was midway through the 2010 season… Minnesota held a nine-minute advantage in time of possession, most of the advantage coming in the second half… Both teams recorded three sacks… The Leathernecks dropped their 11th straight game to a FBS opponent, but have another chance next week to end that streak… It was the first-ever meeting between Western and Minnesota in football… The 42,127 attendance total marked the 11th-largest crowd Western played in front of all-time.
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