Illinois @ Minnesota: A Preview

It was just last season that Minnesota was coming off two straight losses to Michigan and Michigan State when they were getting ready to play Illinois. I guess that history does repeat itself. The Golden Gophers are coming off a 27-24 loss in Ann Arbor two weeks ago, and an embarrassing 51-17 loss in East Lansing last weekend. They welcome the Illini into the Metrodome, a place where they have not lost to Illinois since 1994.

Last week the Spartans pulled off the stunning defeat of the Gophers by placing nine men in the box and daring them to throw the ball. Minnesota QB Bryan Cupito was not able to take advantage of the match ups benefiting the Gopher passing game, and the Spartans were able to slow down the Gopher rushing attack, so they dominated the game. The Spartans laid out the blueprint for every team to beat Minnesota, now it is up to Ron Turner and his coaches to follow the game plan that is a proven winner against Glen Mason's Gophers.

When people think of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, they think of either the really soft schedule that includes St. Mary's for the Blind and St. Olaf's College every season, or they think of the dominant running attack keyed by Laurence Moroney and Marion Barber III. Last season both Moroney and Barber III rushed for over 1,000 yards and over ten touchdowns.

Coming into Saturday's game Moroney has already amassed 869 yards on the ground and 6 touchdowns. He is on pace to record 1,365 yards and 9 touchdowns this season. His backfield partner, Marion Barber III has already rushed for 678 yards and 8 touchdowns this season. At his current pace, Barber will end the season with 1,066 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. The Minnesota running backs are on pace to both rush for 1,000-plus yards on the ground for the second straight season, and when you consider the Illini defense has had struggles stopping the run, it could be a long afternoon for Illini fans.

Unlike the man he is replacing behind center for the Gophers, four year starter Asad Abdul-Khaliq, sophomore Bryan Cupito is not a running quarterback. In fact, he has only attempted to run the ball eighteen times this season for 35 yards. The only game in which he has been asked to throw more than 22 passes was last week's debacle against Michigan State where he went 11-33 for 211 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions.

In every other game, Cupito has not thrown the ball more than 22 times, and only has one interception. Outside of last week's game, Cupito had been very capable for the Gophers who don't ask him to do anything besides not turn the ball over. On the season, Cupito has thrown for 1,262 yards on 71-149 with 10 touchdown passes and 3 interceptions.

There are four Gopher receivers that have more than ten catches on the season, but only junior Jared Ellerson has more than twenty catches. He might be considered the Gophers go to receiver, as he has caught at least one pass in every game this season, and six passes twice (against Illinois State and at Michigan). Freshman Ernest Wheelwright is leading the Gophers in total reception yards with 436 yards on 16 receptions. Among those 436 yards, there are five touchdown catches, including an 80-yard touchdown reception against Illinois State.

Besides Ellerson and Wheelwright, Cupito has also looked the way of junior Jakari Wallace and sophomore tight end Matt Spaeth when he needed to make completions. Wallace has caught thirteen passes on the season; including a career high five passes for 95 yards in last week's loss to Michigan State. Spaeth is considered one of the better pass catching tight ends in the Big Ten right now. He is a converted offensive tackle, and he has adjusted well to being a pass catching tight end for the Gophers. He has caught 12 passes on the season for 151 yards, so he will need to be someone that the Illini defense looks out for in the Gopher passing game.

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