PREVIEW: Illinois at Minnesota

Illinois looks to win back-to-back games against Gophers for first time since 1995 to clinch back-to-back bowls for the second time in six years

Illinois (5-5, 2-4 B1G) at Minnesota (4-6, 1-5)

Time: 11 a.m. CT

TV: ESPNews; Eamon McAnaney (play by play) and Rocky Boiman (analyst)

Last week: Illinois lost to Ohio State 28-3; Minnesota lost at Iowa 40-35

Series: Minnesota leads the all-time series 35-29-3; Minnesota leads the series in Minneapolis 20-12-2; Minnesota has won 10 of the last 14

Vegas betting line: Minnesota (-4.5); Over/under: 47

This week's links

Know Your Enemy: GopherDigest's Ryan Burns breaks down Tracy Claeys' Gophers

Injury Report: Vaughn doubtful, Enyenihi in

Micheal Young: Scouting the Gophers ($)

Under the microscope: As Illini offense struggles, QB Wes Lunt takes brunt of criticism

Notebook: Illini don't shy from bowl talk; Cubit applauds Minnesota's extension of Claeys

Notebook: Illini defense doing its part; Phillips, Cain emerging as playmakers

Werner: Longshot candidate Bill Cubit still fighting for Illini job

Premium: Latest AD buzz ($)


  • .292: Third-down conversion percentage for Illinois opponents, which ranks eight in the FBS.
  • .880: Winning percentage of the opponents Illinois has lost to this season (44-6 record). Ohio State (10-0) and Iowa (10-0) are undefeated. North Carolina is 9-1, Wisconsin is 8-2 and Penn State is 7-3.
  • 3: Blocked kicks this season by Illini defensive tackle Rob Bain, who is tied for the NCAA individual lead.
  • 4: Interceptions by Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt this season over 393 attempts. He is one of four quarterbacks with 350 or more attempts to throw four or fewer interceptions.
  • 6.5: Receptions per game averaged by Minnesota receiver K.J. Maye during conference play, third best in the Big Ten.
  • 7.7: Tackles for loss per game by Illinois, which ranks 15th in the FBS.
  • 41.3: Percentage of Illini yards true freshmen WR Desmond Cain and RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn have accounted for during Big Ten play (838 of 2,101 yards).
  • 45: Rushing yards Illinois running back Josh Ferguson (2,441 career rushing yards) needs to pass Howard Griffith and crack the Illini top-10 career rushing yardage leaders.
  • 115: Tackles for Illini safety Clayton Fejedelem this season, which ranks fifth in the FBS. The Ilini senior has posted 12 or more tackles in six of his last eight games.
  • 129.2: Rushing yards per game Minnesota is averaging during Big Ten play, down from 218.8 last season.
  • 230.2: Passing yards per game Minnesota is averaging during Big Ten play, up from 147.2 last season.
  • 2011: The last time Illinois played in Minneapolis, a 27-7 loss, the Illini's sixth straight loss of a bowl season and Ron Zook's final game as Illinois head coach.

Gophers to watch

1. Mitch Leidner, QB: The junior has put together his best string of games. Over the last five games, Leidner has completing 96 of 156 passes (61.5 percent) for 1,217 yards and seven touchdowns. He is still prone to turning it over (seven intereptions this season) at times, but he is more effective and much more confident than early in the season.

2. Shannon Brooks, RB: The 6-foot, 206-pound true freshman (462 yards, 5.6 ypc) four TDs) isn't as big as David Cobb but has a similar physical mentality and a little more burst. He had a monster 176-yard performance against Purdue but has just 171 yards (3.8 yards per carry) in the four games since. His entire receiving performance this season (six catches, 64 yards) has come over the last three games. Brooks has taken more of the share from the 5-foot-11, 202-pound freshman Rodney Smith, who ran for 363 of his 550 rushing yards during nonconference play.

3. KJ Maye, WR: The 5-foot-10, 205-pound senior (56 receptions, 630 yards, four TDs) has been the beneficiary of the Gophers opening up the offense in recent weeks, going over 90+ yards in three of the last four games. He has 34 catches for 374 yards the last four games and is Leidner's  favorite quick-pass target.

4. Brandon Lingen, TE: Based on Maxx Williams' production in preious seasons, we know Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover likes to use the tight end as a safety blanket -- and as a big-play threat in the seam. Lingen (25 catches, 375 yards, three TDs) has 18 catches for 320 yards the past four games, including two 100+ yard performances. He has a catch of 25+ yards in each of the last four games.

5. Eric Murray, CB: Teammate Briean Boddy-Caloun may be the better pro prospect, but a knee injury has hampered his season abit (though he still has two interceptions. Murray may be the most reliable player, and may be the best player, on the Minnesota roster. The 6-foot, 200-pound senior has 48 tackles (3.5 for loss), six pass break ups, an interception and three forced fumbles.

6. Jack Lynn, LB: Teammate De'Vondre Campbell is the more impressive athlete, but Lynn -- a Lake Zurich, Ill., native -- has made more plays behind the line of scrimmage, leading the Gophers with 9.5 tackles for loss.

7. Steven Richardson, DT: The Chicago Mt. Carmel product has missed the last two games to inury and is questionable for Saturday, but he is the Gophers best player on the front four. Richardson (3.5 sacks) is short (6-foot, 294 pounds) but he is quick off the ball and strong.

Keys to the game

1. Create running room: Illinois is 2-0 during Big Ten play when it tops 100 yards rushing. It is 0-4 when it does not. A running game takes a lot of pressure off Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt and opens up the play-action. Minnesota (173.8 rushing yards allowed per Big Ten game) has a better run defense than Purdue (233.0), but it's not Wisconsin (107.5), Iowa (118.3), Ohio State (130.2) or Nebraska (130.6).The Illini must be more multi-dimensional -- if their personnel allows it.

2. Stretch the field: Opponents are taking away the deep ball against Illinois -- effectively -- and daring them to run. If you combine the first halves of the Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State games, Illinois had just one pass longer than 20 yards. That makes for a lot of slow starts. But Minnesota's pass rush is subpar (18 sacks in 10 games) and injuries have made the back end a bit susceptible, especially safety Adekunle Ayinde. Lunt missed a few deep opportunities last week. He must make the most of the opportunities this week.

3. Put some licks on Leidner: The Illini defensive line has just 16 sacks this season but it has been really disruptive, ranking 15th in the country in tackles for loss per game (7.7). The front four did a nice job of rushing J.T. Barrett and knocking him off his pass game, just like they have with most quarterbacks this season -- Illinois is 26th in the FBS in passing efficiency defense. Like Illinois with Lunt, Minnesota is reliant on Leidner's arm to move the ball right now. Make him uncomfortable and the Minnesota offense will struggle.

Illini in the spotlight


Josh Ferguson, RB: Good thing Ferguson was able to return from an AC sprain. Freshman running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn is doubtful and a long shot to play on Saturday. Ferguson has really struggled to stay fresh and effective into fourth quarters. Without Vaughn, the load is on Ferguson because his backup is walk-on Cameron Tucker. Will Cubit try to manage Ferguson's reps or will he just feed his stud with the season on the line?


Taylor Barton, S: The Illini junior is tied for second in the Big Ten in interceptions but has just one over the last eight games. Minnesota is airing it out, and someone in the secondary needs to take advantage of the increased risk of Minnesota relying on Leidner's arm.


Against all odds, Illinois won its final two games of the season last year (Penn State at home and at Northwestern) to earn bowl eligibility. This season, they enter the final two weeks needing just one win for back-to-back bowls. Again, the odds are against them -- quite literally. Vegas lists the Illini as a 4.5-point underdog on the road this week and surely will list the Illini as an underdog next week at a neutral site (Soldier Field) against No. 20 Northwestern even if Illinois is officially listed as the home team. Injuries and the schedule haven't helped Illinois much this season, but Minnesota is the closest thing to Illinois that Illinois has seen since the Nebraska game. Purdue was inferior and Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State are all top-half Big Ten programs. The Illini's five losses have come to teams with a combined 44-6 record. Minnesota already has six losses by itself. Illinois has weaknesses, especially now on offense. But this team has handled adversity as well as any in the country -- maybe with Minnesota as the one exception. Still, Illinois has slightly better athletes than Minnesota, and I think a bowl bid means just that little extra more to the Illini this season.

Illinois 24, Minnesota 20

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