Game Preview: Illinois

Jeff Horton has seen his team get outscored 116-39 since he took over as head coach when Tim Brewster was fired last month. The Gophers have lost nine consecutive games, including all three Horton has coached. The latest came in a 31-8 defeat at Michigan State, and the losing ways will likely continue Saturday at Illinois.

Still, Horton is trying to stay positive and keep his team playing hard in Minnesota's lost season. The interim coach has a simple message for his players.

"There's no reason to be miserable," Horton told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "There's enough negativity around us. We don't feel good about 1-9, but let's be above that. Keep your energy and keep moving forward."

Trailing 21-0 at halftime against Michigan State, there were signs the Gophers were on their way to a repeat of their 52-10 embarrassment to Ohio State the previous week. Instead, Minnesota was competitive in the second half in holding the final margin to 23 points.

The outcome didn't change as the Gophers fell to 0-6 in the Big Ten, but the players seem to be listening to Horton's words.

"They hung in there and tried for 60 minutes, and I appreciated that," Horton told the Star-Tribune. "You always wish you made more plays, but it wasn't for lack of effort or want-to. I was proud of our players."

Horton is trying to convince his team there's still something to play for no matter what the numbers look like.

"Let's try to get something good happening for the seniors," he said. "And for the guys coming back, with the new coach, let's try to gather momentum for you to go into the offseason."


--Minnesota has won seven of its last 10 against Illinois. The Gophers won 27-20 on their last trip to Champaign.

--Thanks to injuries and suspensions to key players and poor play in general by others, 20 players have made their first career starts this season. A total of 15 players have made their debuts in the starting lineup on defense. Strong safety Johnny Johnson and defensive tackle Austin Hahn made their first career starts against Michigan State.

--Blocking tight end Curtis Hughes was used on the depleted defensive line in goal line situations against Michigan State.

SERIES HISTORY: Minnesota leads Illinois, 32-28-3 (last meeting 2009, 35-32, Illinois).

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: It's an entirely different look when MarQueis Gray lines up in place of Adam Weber. Gray is a run-first quarterback while Weber will drop back in the pocket and look for a receiver. Weber, a four-year starter, will still get the majority of the snaps, but it makes sense to let Gray pick up some experience in preparation for next season.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: You want to run the ball? Yep, that will work. You want to throw the ball? Sure, that will work too. The Gophers can't stop anything. The defense has allowed 338 points and takes away any chance to win early in games on a weekly basis. Injuries, suspensions and relying on too many young players have resulted in a terrible performance.

QUOTE TO NOTE:"In the situation we're in, let's continue to protect each other. If we make a mistake, let's pick each other up. Let's all be on the same boat." -- Interim coach Jeff Horton to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on Minnesota's final two games of the season.


THIS WEEK'S GAME: Minnesota at Illinois Nov. 13 -- Maybe Illinois will still be tired after losing in three overtimes to Michigan. The fact the Illini allowed 67 points (45 in regulation) gives some hope to the offense. The fact Illinois scored 65 points (45 in regulation) means the defense is in for another long day.

KEYS TO THE GAME: A few more snaps for MarQueis Gray will force Illinois to prepare for two completely different offenses. Someone will have to keep an eye on Gray wherever he lines up. Of course, if Minnesota's defense keeps playing as it has all season, it won't matter what the offense does.


WR/QB MarQueis Gray -- The likely quarterback next season, it appears he'll be eased into the position as 2010 winds down. Gray took some snaps against Michigan State, running five times for 31 yards and completing 2-of-6 passes for 24 yards. While Gray isn't the passer Adam Weber is, his running ability will give the offense a much different dimension.

LB Gary Tinsley -- The junior is one of the few productive players on defense. He leads the team with 74 tackles and has recorded at least five tackles in each of the Gophers' past nine games. Tinsley had a sack against Michigan State, the first sack by a linebacker this season. He has also been in double figures in tackles four times.

WR Da'Jon McKnight -- The junior leads the team with 41 catches and has averaged 15.5 yards per catch. McKnight also leads the team with nine touchdown catches and has caught a pass in 15 consecutive games. He'll be the No. 1 target next season in the likely event MarQueis Gray starts at quarterback.


--TB Donnell Kirkwood's season is over, and he will get a redshirt year. The freshman, who has had hamstring and calf injuries, played in four games and gained 112 yards on 27 carries.

--DT Brandon Kirksey, who was suspended for the Michigan State game, will return against Illinois. The junior is one of the Gophers' captains.

--CB Michael Carter and defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman are suspended for the remainder of the season to concentrate on academics.

--G Matt Carufel (knee) and OL Dom Alford (knee) didn't play against Michigan State.

--S Kim Royston has yet to play in a game after breaking both bones in his left leg during spring ball.

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