Illini Unhappy Homecoming Foe for Minnesota

Football teams often schedule Homecoming games against opponents they think they can beat. They don't need a highly ranked opponent to have good ticket sales, and it gives alumni something to cheer on their return visits. But even though the Illini have been a common homecoming opponent in the Big Ten, they don't take kindly to the roll Saturda's game at Minnesota in the Metrodome.

"I don't want to be anyone's Homecoming date any more," proclaims Illini linebacker Brit Miller. "We know they scheduled us for Homecoming, and we've got to use that for motivation. For a long time, we were a Homecoming game for a lot of people. Hopefully, we can prove them wrong."

New coach Tim Brewster wants to defeat Illinois as much as anyone else on his schedule. The former Illini tight end was passed over for the Illinois head coaching job when Ron Zook was hired, so he has plenty of incentive to transform a large Homecoming crowd into a 12th man to help his Gophers whip the Illini.

The Fighting Illini know the potential trap that awaits in Minneapolis. They haven't played well against Minnesota for several years, and they have a poor history with games in the Metrodome. But they are buoyed by their recent successes and are likely to play more relaxed since they are now eligible for a possible bowl game. One more win would guarantee a decent bowl, so the Illini have much to motivate them for Saturday's game.

If this week's practices are any indication, the Illini will not take the Gophers and their 1-8 record lightly. The large group of seniors have never beaten Minnesota, and they've never gone to a bowl game. They know how easy it is to become disillusioned after a series of painful losses. They empathize with the Gophers' plight and are grateful their previous misfortunes may be behind them.

Star middle linebacker J. Leman reflected on some of the bizarre things that happened to Illinois in the past few years as a way of understanding Minnesota's season so far this year.

"Stuff always goes a lot better, and you get more good breaks, when you're winning. This year, with a team like Ball State where we weren't as into it emotionally as we needed to be, we found a way to win. In the past, if we weren't jacked up as much as we needed to be, we didn't have a chance.

"I think it's a combination of talent and experience that allows us to win when we're not all the way jacked up. Unlike previous years, we don't get rattled when bad stuff happens. Ball State had some good drives, but we didn't let it rattle us. I can't remember a year like last year where it seemed like every one of our punts went into the end zone and every one of theirs was downed on the 2. It was crazy."

Minnesota can attest to the craziness. It has lost two overtime games by one point each, and four losses have been by one touchdown or less. Success is often measured in inches, and failure is often no more than a ball that takes an unpredictable bounce. Gopher fans keep waiting for their fortunes to change, but sometimes teams must hit rock bottom before they can begin the slow climb back to respectability.

It is Illinois' task Saturday to keep the Gophers down for at least one more week. They may empathize with Minnesota's plight, but they want to make sure the Gophers rise up on their own merits and not through bad play or complacent motivation by an opposing team.

The Illini are enjoying relatively good health considering they have now played nine straight tough games without a bye week. And it was encouraging to see regulars Derek Walker, Michael Hoomanawanui and Kyle Hudson practicing again after minor injuries caused them to miss Ball State. It remains to be seen how much they will play against Minnesota, but they will be available.

A big key to this game will be how well the Illini can neutralize the passing and running of quarterback Adam Weber. Operating out of a spread offense as so many teams now employ, the Gophers have enjoyed some huge offensive outputs this season. Co-Defensive Coordinator Dan Disch hopes Illinois' improving defense will know better how to counteract the spread after seeing it so often.

"We're getting better each week. Spread teams are going to get a lot of yards and a lot of points, and the key for us is to keep learning and studying. You're not going to stop it because it's not that type of offense. But what you do get is more confident against it. Our kids feel more confident each week."

According to Miller, going against their own spread offense each day in practice helps the Illini against other spread teams.

"We've grown as a defense just by playing against our spread offense. And the athleticism we've been recruiting has been paying off too. The spread offense shrinks when you have pretty good athletes out there. Vontae Davis, Dere Hicks, Justin Sanders, Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison can really shrink the field against a spread offense. We just need to go back to our basics, things we learned in spring ball. What Minnesota does is pretty complex, but we're going to keep it simple to match their complexity."

It will also help if the Illini can improve their passing attack to complement a powerful run game. This is especially true since Minnesota starts three freshmen in their defensive backfield. Freshman record-breaking receiver Arrelious Benn sees growth in the passing game.

"Every week the passing game is going to pick up. We're getting better with it each week."

Coach Zook and his staff have worked diligently to keep the Illini focused on the task at hand.

"This is obviously a big, big game for us going up there. I think it's important that our football team understands what we have accomplished because we have accomplished some big things. But more importantly, I think we understand that there is an awful lot to go, a long way to go, and a lot we can accomplish. I think it's important that we do the things that we have done to get to this point."

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