Minnesota coach Tim Brewster played at Illinois, so he is always fired up to defeat the team that looked past him to hire Ron Zook five years ago. He did that last year, winning in Champaign 27-20 for Homecoming. Zook knows the Gophers will give their best effort Saturday.
"They have a good football team. They've got a lot of talent. They beat us last year at our place, they will be fired up. It's a big game for both programs. They're trying to get bowl eligible. It'll be a war."
Defensive tackle Corey Liuget agrees.
"They're coming to play. Their head coach wanted to be here, wanted to have the job Coach Zook got, and he's gonna have his guys fired up. We're ready for it."Last year's game reminded long-term Illini fans of the 1980's Mike White teams. Brewster played on a couple of those teams, and he learned the value of being overly aggressive. Like White's teams, the Gophers play to and sometimes past the whistle. Illini players were whistled for retaliation penalties, giving Minnesota an advantage.
Illinois knows better than to respond to these tactics this year according to Zook.
"I showed them all those plays. They always get the second person. We've got to play. Let's make sure we take care of business and play the way we're capable of playing. There's no room for that. Let's let the officials officiate, and let's go play."
Liuget set an excellent example on how to ignore any dirty tactics last week against Michigan. Celebrating a big fumble recovery, Liuget walked too close to a UM lineman and was rewarded with a punch to the groin. Liuget hobbled off without retaliating.
"Yeah, I just tried to let it go for the moment, hoping the refs would throw the flag," Liuget described afterward. "But I had to suck it up and walk off to the sideline."
Zook was proud of Liuget for applying lessons learned.
"You talk about that all the time. Sometimes it's hard, but you have to stay focused and stay in the moment and play."
Illinois played poorly last year, but they also had some weird plays go against them. The game is fresh in Illini minds, and they do seem focused on reversing the result. But revenge is not a useful emotion according to defensive tackle Josh Brent.
"No, not revenge. When you go in with those type of intentions, you lose focus and you wind up losing the game because you're more focused on getting revenge. We need to focus on this year and what we need to do to get the win this year.
"They're a different team offensively and defensively. Their schemes aren't the same as last year. If we focus on what they did last year, we'll be ill-prepared for this game."
Rather than payback, perhaps do-over might accurately describe Illini feelings. Last year, they wanted to go back on the field right after the final whistle and play the Gophers again. A whole year has gone by, but few have forgotten.
Minnesota had its strongest offensive output of the season last week, defeating Michigan State 42-34 without superstar receiver Eric Decker, out for the season. Quarterback Adam Weber (6'-3", 221) passed for 416 yards and five touchdowns.
Weber is the Gophers' career leader in completions and pass attempts. He is backed by freshman MarQueis Gray (6'-4, 222), who runs option and has a strong arm.
Zook has tremendous respect for Weber.
"There's no rest for the weary. It's like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire because this football team we're getting ready to play has arguably one of the best players in the conference and had over 500 yards offense. The quarterback threw for over 400 yards. The first play of the game was a 62-yard touchdown with the running back on a wheel route. It's going to be a game that our guys are going to have to be ready to go for."
Weber is not the only weapon according to Brent.
"They have a huge offensive line. It is pretty massive. And Adam Weber is a great, great quarterback. Probably under the radar a little bit because their star wide receiver's been out.
"They have almost a pro-style offense. With that offensive line, Weber has time to make great throws. And they have some fast receivers along with a very fast back. So they provide a huge challenge."
The Minnesota line consists of junior tackles Dom Alford (6'-3", 336) and Jeff Wills (6'-7", 365), guards Chris Bunders (6'-3", 322), a sophomore, and junior Matt Carufel (6'-5", 302), and junior center D.J. Burris (6'-2", 290).
Talented receivers and tight ends are available for Weber despite Decker's loss. Sophomore Da'Jon Knight (6'-3", 200) replaced Decker and had four catches for 98 yards last week. Sophomore Troy Stoudermire (5'-10", 183) also stars as a kick returner, and Illinois native Brandon Green (6'-0", 183), also a sophomore, is averaging 13.9 yards per reception. Tight end Nick Tow-Arnett grabbed eight tosses for 81 yards and two touchdowns last week. There are quality backups as well.
Sophomore Duane Bennett (5'-9", 203) stars at running back. The O'Fallon product was injured last year but returned with a vengence. He tallied three scores against Northwestern, and he had 100 receiving yards last week. Backup DeLeon Eskridge (5'-11", 198) was a thorn in Illinois' side last year. Zook has respect for both backs.
"He's a good back. There isn't a question. Both of them are good. The backup had over 100 yards against us last year. Bennett comes out and the first play of the game goes for 62 yards. Very explosive."
Zook summarized the Minnesota offensive tendencies and the threat they provide the Illini defense.
"Offensively, they'll bring in the other quarterback occasionally and they'll get into some zone reads and things of that nature. They're going to be predominantly an 11 person out, which is a tight end and three wide receivers and a running back. That's their base personnel package.
"How can you lose your best player, and arguably the best player in the league, and still have 500 yards of offense? I think the thing is that we knew who they were going to go to in the other games. Now, you don't know where they're going. A tight end caught eight balls.
"(Troy Stoudermire) has really raised his game. He's a heck of a returner, particularly a kickoff returner. That's probably one of the strengths of their football team as well, is the return game and the special teams. Everybody raised their game up another notch."
The Gophers have a hard-hitting defense according to Zook.
"Defensively they're a four-three, and they're doing a lot of the same things (as Illinois). They're playing aggressive. I'm serious, it looks like they play better at home. They play hard."
Lineman Jeff Allen has great respect for the Gopher defensive line.
"They've got two big guys in the middle. They're huge. And their defensive ends are pretty solid as well."
Allen played poorly against them last year as a true freshman. He is motivated to reverse that this year.
"Definitely. That was a terrible game. I had a bad game personally. I'm just looking forward to having a good game and us coming out with a win."
The strength of the Gopher defense is their trio of senior linebackers. Middle linebacker Lee Campbell (6'-3", 246) leads the team in tackles and tackles for loss. He is joined by Simoni Lawrence (6'-1", 221), who played great against the Illini last year, and Nate Triplett (6'-3", 247). All three have had at least one double digit tackle total in games this season. The four starting defensive backs are upperclassmen as well.
The Illini have prepared well this week. Can they build on their good play against Michigan? Liuget thinks so.
"Yes, that's what we're doing. That's why we're really giving our all through practicing and not just going through the motions. We're getting after it."
Quarterback Juice Williams is eager to build off last week's offensive outburst.
"Absolutely. Anytime you move the ball like that, as consistently as we did, that's always a plus. Hopefully, how we ended the game will lead to the transition to Minnesota."
Zook is focusing solely on the game at hand. He wants to see the Illini get on a winning streak, but that is impossible without a concerted effort against the Gophers.
"This is all about Minnesota. This is going to be a big test and a big game. They have an opportunity to become bowl eligible, as did Michigan, and we're going do everything we're able to do to play the way we're capable of playing."