Scouting Report: Gophers Looking For 2nd Win

The Fighting Illini football team travels to Minnesota Saturday hoping to spoil Homecoming festivities for the Gophers and guarantee a bowl bid. Despite their 1-8 record, Minnesota offers a difficult challenge for the Illini.

New coach Tim Brewster, a former Illini tight end, is in his first year leading the Gophers. He has gotten off to a rocky start but hopes to give returning alumni something to cheer at his old school's expense. Having been passed over for the Illinois job when Ron Zook was hired, the Gophers are expected to be at an emotional peak for the game.

Four of the Minnesota losses have been by one touchdown or less. Two overtime games both ended as one-point losses. With a little good fortune, the Gophers could be a five-win team seeking bowl eligibility. And they have some talent to work with, especially offensively. They average 415 yards per game and 27.6 points per game.

Redshirt freshman Adam Weber (6'-3", 220) has been the star of the offense. He has already broken Minnesota's freshman quarterbacking records, and he presently ranks 21st nationally. He has passed for over 2000 yards in Minnesota's spread offense, completing 195 passes for 19 touchdowns. He is also the second leading rusher on his team with 430 yards.

Weber has at least two talented receivers to hit with his passes. Ernie Wheelright is a 6'-5", 215 pound senior who has had an excellent four-year career. He has caught 44 passes for 533 yards and 8 touchdowns so far this year.

Sophomore Eric Decker (6'-2", 215) has received even more press and is a candidate for All-Big Ten honors. Eric already has 56 catches for 691 yards and six touchdowns. His catches per contest average ranks him third in the Big Ten. Decker and Wheelright both have big strong bodies and are difficult to defend. Their tight end is the talented Jack Simmons (6'-4", 240), a product of Libertyville, Illinois (Carmel).

Minnesota has a history of outstanding running backs, and there are some good ones available again this year. Senior Amir Pinnix (6'-0, 205) leads the Gophers with 562 yards. Pinnix has had an excellent career, rushing for around 500 yards more than Illinois star Rashard Mendenhall. He is supported by Duane Bennett, a true freshman from O'Fallon, Illinois. Bennett rushed for over 100 yards last week against Michigan and has 321 yards in his young career.

Former coach Glenn Mason focused primarily on the running game, so it is not surprising the Gopher offensive line is talented. Despite starting two redshirt freshmen and a sophomore, their line has given up only nine sacks the whole year, which is top-ranked in the conference and 9th best in the country. They know how to protect Weber, and they are equally adept at blasting holes for the running game.

Co-Defensive Coordinator Dan Disch is facing still another spread offense, and he is concerned about the potency of the Gopher attack.

"Minnesota uses a lot of zone read and option. They even spread you out with screens. They are similar to Indiana and Missouri, the type of offenses that spread the whole field and can run their quarterback. They can cause you problems. Weber is their guy. He'll run it on quarterback draws, scrambles, options off the zone play. He is a real tough kid and does a good job. He has real good speed, so we're going to have our hands full."

And star middle linebacker J. Leman echoes those thoughts.

"Minnesota has a really potent offense. You look at the yards they've put up against some high quality opponents like Michigan, and it's really surprising to see their overall record."

Minnesota's defense has been porous at times, but they are improving game by game. They are giving up 537 yards of total offense and 37 points per game. However, Minnesotans are quick to point out that 24 turnovers by their offense have contributed mightily to those statistics by placing the defense in precarious positions without sufficient rest.

The Gophers are extremely young on defense. Three of the four defensive back starters Saturday will be true freshmen, which makes them vulnerable to a good passing attack. Senior cornerback Jamal Harris is third in the Big Ten with 12 pass breakups, but he doesn't start. So there must be some talent back there.

Senior strong safety Dominique Barber leads the team in tackles and is 6th in the league. Junior linebacker Deon Hightower (6'-3", 215) is second in tackles and has 8 tackles for loss. He has played especially well the last three games. Defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg (6'-4", 255) was expected to be a standout along the line, but he is running second string due to injury.

Minnesota has won its last six homecoming games. And they have meted out some embarrassing losses to the Illini along the way. The two teams didn't play the last two years, but recent Gopher victories over the Illini include 45-0 in 2004, 36-10 in 2003, 31-10 in 2002, 44-10 in 2000, and 37-7 in 1999. Only in the Sugar Bowl year of 2001 did the Illini prevail in that span, and it was played in Memorial Stadium. The last time the Illini won in the Metrodome was 1994, a span of 13 years.

It is perhaps noteworthy that all the losses from 2000 on occurred the week following the Michigan game. Illinois is always fired up to play the Wolverines. Win or lose, the Illini have come out flat against the Gophers afterward. Interestingly, it is Minnesota who must play this game one week after losing to Michigan, so perhaps the shoe will be on the other foot for a change.

Illinois head coach Ron Zook has great respect for the Minnesota team despite their record.

"This is a football team that is much improved, improving every week. They've done a great job defensively. They played against top three offenses in the Big Ten, so maybe some of those numbers are a little bit skewed. But they have a kicking game, are very well coached, solid and are third in the league in kickoff returns."

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