Preview & Pick: Minnesota at Illinois

Illini looking for second straight home win over Minnesota as they host the Gophers for 106th homecoming

Minnesota (5-2, 2-2) at Illinois (2-5, 1-3)

Time: 11 a.m. CT

TV: ESPNews -- Kevin Kugler (play by play), Matt MIllen (analyst) and Lisa Byington (reporter)

Series: Minnesota leads the all-time series 36-29-3. Illinois has a 17-15-1 margin in Champaign.

Vegas betting line: Minnesota (-9)

Last week: Minnesota defeated Rutgers at home 34-32; Illinois lost at No. 2 Michigan 41-8

Extras: Illinois will wear its Gray Ghost uniforms along with new blue helmets featuring gray stripes and Block I. BTN Tailgate (Dave Revsine, Gerry Dinardo and Anthony Adams) will broadcast live from Grange Grove 9:30 to 11 a.m. with special guests Dick Butkus, Dana Howard, Kevin Hardy and John Groce.

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Numbers to know

3: Undefeated teams Illinois has played this season -- No. 2 Michigan (7-0), No. 7 Nebraska (7-0) and No. 20 Western Michigan (8-0) -- the only team in the country to face so many undefeated teams. Illinois' six FBS opponents have a combined .686 winning percentage (33-12), the ninth toughest schedule so far this season.

8.3: Tackles for loss per game by Illini, which ranks eighth nationally and third among Big Ten teams.

16: First-half points allowed by Minnesota during its four conference games. The Gophers have only allowed one first-half touchdown (vs. Rutgers) during conference play.

23: First-time starters this season for Illinois, tied for most in the nation with Bowling Green. The Illini have started nine freshmen (three true freshmen and six redshirt freshmen).

26: Consecutive starts for Illini redshirt junior offensive tackle Christian DiLauro.

29.8: Third-down conversion percentage for the Illinois offense, which ranks 124th nationally and 13th among Big Ten teams.

35: Career starts for Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner, who had a 27-game start streak snapped when he missed the Maryland game due to injury. The three-time captain has a career 20-15 record as a starter.

43.3: Percentage of Illinois' total receiving yards by junior Malik Turner, who leads all Illini receivers with 33 catches for 513 yards. The team's second leading receiver, Justin Hardee, is on pace for about 180 receiving yards on the season.

Gophers to watch

ESPN's Todd McShay shockingly labeled the Minnesota senior a first-round draft pick during the offseason, but Leidner (1,162 yards, 58.1 completion rate, 5 TDs, 5 INTs) currently ranks outside the conference's top-10 in pass efficiency. A lot of that is due to his lack of talent at receiver (similar to Illini QB Wes Lunt). He does provide some running ability (182 rushing yards), which the Illini have struggled to contain this season.

The 5-foot-11, 205-pound sophomore (701 rushing yards, eight TDs, 5.3 ypc) is one of just three Big Ten backs averaging more than 100 rushing yards per game (100.1), along with Northwestern's Justin Jackson (113.1) and Wisconsin's Corey Clement (102.8). He already has four 100-yard rushing games this season after totaling just one 100-yard game last season. Smith also is a dangerous return man, taking back a 94-yard kickoff return last week against Rutgers.

The 6-foot, 210-pound sophomore missed the first two games of the season with injury but has 413 yards (5.1 ypc) and five touchdowns in five games this season. As a freshman, Brooks ran for 174 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries to lead the Gophers to a 32-23 win.

The Chicago (Ill.) Mt. Carmel prospect is listed at 6-foot, but the 300-pounder is closer to 5-foot-9. That hasn't stopped him from being a wrecking ball in the trenches. This season, he has 22 tackles, seven tackles for loss, three sacks, one pass breakup and one fumble recovery.

The hard-hitting junior leads Minnesota with 55 tackles along with 5.5 tackles for loss and three pass breakups. He has 32 tackles over the last three games.

The sophomore defensive back has missed four games this season due to legal issues. But when Hardin plays, he makes an impact. In three games, he has 13 tackles, three pass breakups and two intereceptions. When he plays, the Minnesota defense is much better.

Illini in the spotlight

Wes Lunt (back) participated in practice this week. But technically he did last week as well. It's unclear how many reps the senior (who has missed the last two games) received with the offense, if any. Chayce Crouch did not participate in practice and his season is in jeopardy due to a shoulder injury. That means Jeff George Jr. could receive his second career start. The redshirt freshman expectedly struggled in his first career start against the nation's top-ranked defense at Michigan. George Jr. (4-for-15, 95 yards, one touchdown) missed several throws and had two turnovers (one interception, one lost fumble). But he showed some toughness in the face of great adversity and pressure. George Jr. may get an opportunity to show how much he can grow from that invaluable experience.

"He turned the ball over twice, which you can't do," Illini offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said. "But besides that, he's competitive. The kids like him. He's an accurate passer. He'll stand in the pocket and still keep his eyes downfield and deliver the ball down the field. So, I'm happy with Jeff moving forward."

Redshirt sophomore weakside linebacker Tre Watson was having his career-best game at Michigan (seven tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss) before he was ejected for a targeting penalty. Watson will now miss the first half of Saturday's game, providing opportunity for true freshman Jake Hansen. The previous Illinois staff was able to flip the former Iowa State commit last February, and he has impressed the new staff. So far, most of Hansen's experience has come on special teams (seven tackles).

"Jake is a great motor guy, runs well, a contact player," Illin defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said. "He's got good instincts. He's one of those guys who we obviously want to see in game-type action. We're excited to see what he'll do with the opportunity he'll get this weekend."

Keys to the game

1. Control the gaps: Illinois has two future NFL defensive ends, a solid rotation of defensive tackles, the Big Ten's leading tackler at middle linebacker and two progressing, promising young linebackers. So why so many issues in the run game? Gap control or gap integrity. In Lovie Smith's single-gap scheme, each defender is responsible for a single gap. Too often this year, Illinois has players either overrunning their gaps or running to the wrong gaps -- which opens up huge holes in the run game, especially the zone-read option. Minnesota brings the Big Ten's fourth-best rushing offense (212.4 yards per game), and Leidner is capable of running some read-option. Smith said his defense is still adjusting to his scheme.

"Before you can really play good football and play fast, you have to really know exactly what you're doing and you have to be disciplined," Smith said. "It's easy for us to say in here that, 'You have to do this.' But once it's out there and it all starts to move a bit faster, you have to still focus in. Last week was the fist traditional offense we played, and we didn't play it as well as we should have. It's as simple as that. It's the discipline of just trusting your teammates to do their job, but you concentrate on doing yours. Sometimes that may mean you running through a gap (on one side) and the ball goes over there (to the opposite side). That just doesn't happen overnight. We'll continue to work on it."

2. Win third down: Illinois is 13th of 14 Big Ten teams in both third-down offense (29.8 percent) and 13th in third-down defense (46.5 percent). The Illini need to actually slow the rushing attack and force Minnesota into third-and-longs. Minnesota's offensive line is really good in pass protection, but it has one of the worst passing efficiency offenses in the country (119th of 128 FBS teams) and lacks players who can get separation and make plays. With Jeff George Jr. as a possible starter, the Illini offense needs to get in 3rd-and-manageable situations.

3. Make the big play: In a toss-up at Rutgers, Darius Mosely's pick-six halted Rutgers' fourth-quarter momentum and sealed the game for Illinois. In another competitive game with two limited offenses, whoever makes the big play -- whether on offense, defense or special teams -- seems to have the advantage. It could be a turnover, a special teams touchdown (Smith's kickoff return helped seal Minnesota's win over Rutgers) or an offensive player breaking away. Illinois is the underdog and needs to make the game-changing play at home.


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Illinois has winnable games left on the schedule. And this is one of them.

Minnesota has lost two games by a combined 10 points (14-7 loss to Iowa and a 29-26 loss at Penn State). Not to use Tim Beckman logic here, but the Gophers are just a few plays away from a 7-0 record. They're a solid team. But they've played a pretty soft schedule so far and have struggled to put away struggling teams like Rutgers, Oregon State and Colorado State. Illinois should have its opportunities on Saturday. The Gophers aren't much more talented than Illinois. But they aren't going through as big of a coaching transition as the Illini players. Plus, they've figured out ways to win games this season.

Illinois will have to play its best, most complete game of the year, though. The defense and its new young contributors made strides in the second half against Michigan's rushing attack. Can they continue it against Minnesota's impressive rushing attack?

The bigger questions are on offense given the quarterback situation. If Lunt returns, will he show rust and even if not, can he and the offense have more success than they had together early in the season? If it's George Jr., is he good enough or ready enough to lead Illinois to a Big Ten win?

Minnesota is beatable, especially on the road. But Illinois still seems more beatable, even at home.

Minnesota 28, Illinois 20

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