With Minnesota coach Jerry Kill at a hospital after a seizure at halftime, David Cobb and Rodrick Williams each rushed for two touchdowns to lead the Gophers past Western Illinois 29-12 on Saturday afternoon.
Kill has epilepsy, and this is the fourth time in three seasons with the Gophers he's had an episode on game day. The scene of Kill writhing back and forth on the sideline is always jarring nonetheless, and the sluggish Gophers (3-0) found themselves trailing 12-7 until late in the third quarter.
But they got their running game on track in time to pull away. Cobb carried 13 times for 82 yards and Williams had 10 rushes for 46 yards. Mitch Leidner replaced the injured Philip Nelson at quarterback and ran 17 times for 64 yards.
Trenton Norvell threw two touchdown passes without a turnover for the Leathernecks (2-1), the latest FCS foe in position for an upset at Minnesota. But Norvell finished 11 for 23 for 162 yards, and Western Illinois was outgained on the ground 213 yards rushing to 68. The Gophers forced eight punts.
Minnesota's preference to use the read option as a prominent piece of the offense greater exposes the quarterbacks to injury, and Nelson limped off after a third straight punt to start the game. Leidner's first drive yielded a touchdown, the first score by the Gophers after more than 25-and-a-half minutes without, and he ran on seven of the 10 plays on that possession.
Leidner finished 7 for 8 for 105 yards passing.
The Leathernecks took the first lead on a patient drive set up by Antoine Ford's 33-yard punt return. The Gophers stuffed three straight runs at the line after first-and-goal from the 1, but Nielson boldly went for the end zone on fourth down. With a hard play-action fake, Norvell dropped back and floated a pass over the defense to wide-open tight end Mason Howington in front of the goal post on the final play of the first quarter. The 2-point conversion failed, but the confidence for Western Illinois was forged.
The Leathernecks finished 3-8 last season and were picked for ninth place out of 10 in the Missouri Valley Conference in the preseason poll, but they have a history of success. Western Illinois actually has the best all-time winning percentage of all of the state's Division I football programs, having produced nine NCAA playoff appearances since 1988 and standout NFL players like Frank Winters, Don Beebe, Bryan Cox and Rodney Harrison.
New coach Bob Nielson has an even stronger record, with two Division II national championships at Minnesota Duluth in the last five years. The MVC, too, might be the best in the FCS with five teams in the latest Top 25 rankings. Then there are the three times in six matchups with Minnesota between 2004 and 2011 that programs currently in the MVC of the past six matchups emerged victorious: North Dakota State (twice) and South Dakota.
So when the Leathernecks retook the lead at 12-7 on an 11-yard pass from Norvell to fellow freshman Lance Lenoir, the situation looked all too familiar. Ra'Shede Hageman blocked the extra point.
But Leidner played well in relief, except for one egregious mistake the Gophers were able to overcome. On the possession after WIU's go-ahead score, Leidner fumbled at the goal line when the ball was forced out by David McDaniel and recovered by Kevin Knitzel in the end zone. Knitzel tried to return it but was tackled at the 1.
Nathan Knuffman's punt netted only 17 yards, and a few plays later Cobb was crossing the plain on a short run. Logan Hutton caught the 2-point conversion pass to make it 15-12 in favor of Minnesota.
Then Gophers pulled away, setting up Cobb's second score with a twisting, acrobatic 19-yard reception by freshman tight end Maxx Williams. Earlier, Williams was the target on Leidner's first college completion, lowering his shoulder to bowl over McDaniel for a 33-yard gain that set up the first touchdown.