Game Preview: Illinois at Minnesota

Will the Illinois slide continue? After being such a hot story over the first half of the season with a 6-0 start, the wheels have come off with a five-game losing streak with no offense and key loss after key loss against the Big Ten's better teams. Minnesota isn't one of the Big Ten's better teams, but it's playing with a ton of heart and fire in a lost season.

The Illini coaching staff is on a major hot seat, and a loss to Minnesota would all but end the Ron Zook era and could be enough to keep the team home for the bowl season. With so many Big Ten teams bowl eligible, there's a chance one could be left out in the cold. Bowls aren't going to be too fired up to take a dead Illini squad.

Minnesota isn't scoring much, but it shocked Iowa, gave Michigan State a good fight, and battled with Northwestern over the last month. This is a stepping-stone year for Jerry Kill and a program that needs at least two recruiting cycles to start to be more of a factor, and when it comes to recruiting and momentum, coming up with a win in the season finale could do wonders. The team hasn't stopped playing hard, and against the struggling Ilini, effort could be enough to pay off.

The road team has won the last four games, and the last three games have been wildly entertaining with each getting interesting late and each decided by a touchdown or less. There's a sense of desperation for both teams, and it should show with this being Minnesota's bowl game and Illinois fighting to turn its season back around. One way or another, a program will probably change depending on what happens.

Why Illinois Might Win: Illinois might be struggling to score, but Minnesota is having just as many problems. The Gophers haven't hit the 30-point mark yet this year, and they've only scored more than 17 points twice since mid-September. The offense has come up with yards from time to time, but they haven't led to enough points with the defense and special teams needed to help manufacture points. Considering how much the Illinois offense is sputtering, finally, it goes into a game knowing that it might not have to put up 24 points to get the win. There's too much talent on Illinois to be this mediocre, and the offense is way, way overdue to bust out.

The Minnesota offense has been struggling, but the defense has been even worse. The secondary has been picked clean by everyone and anyone who can throw. Wisconsin's Russell Wilson connected on 16-of-17 passes, and Northwestern's Dan Persa hit 22-of-31 throws last week. On the year, opposing quarterbacks are completing a whopping 69% of their passes for 2,522 yards and 23 scores and four picks. Nathan Scheelhaase has to be licking his chops.

Why Minnesota Might Win: Where has the Illinois offense gone? So potent over the first half of the season, cranking out 473 yards or more in five of the first six games, the attack hasn't put up more than 301 yards just once, and that was in the loss to Purdue with 366 yards. The running game has stopped working and the passing attack isn't coming up with the big downfield plays it was over the first half of the year. After throwing 12 touchdown passes in the first seven games, it came up with just one in the last four.

The biggest problem has been turnovers. The Illini wasn't exactly stingy with the ball early on, but it's been a real issue over the last few weeks with 11 giveaways in the last three games including four against Wisconsin last week. Minnesota has given away four picks in the last three games, but it has only lost one fumble since October.

What To Watch Out For: Nathan Scheelhaase has been struggling, and Illinois is using Reilly O'Toole from time to time to see if he can spark more of a passing game. However, it only seems to be killing the team's continuity. The Illini actually moved the ball a bit against Wisconsin, but turnovers turned out to be the problem with O'Toole throwing two picks while completing 7-of-12 passes for 53 yards. Scheelhaase completed 15-of-19 passes for 99 yards with a pick and ran for 28 yards, and last year he was awful against the Gophers completing 10-of-21 passes. He needs to rock to keep a firm hold on the starting job.

Last week against Northwestern, Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray only completed 9-of-21 passes for 124 yards and a pick, but he ran for 160 yards and a score. The passing game isn't working and is wildly inefficient, but Gray is still a weapon and a difference maker. If he wants to be the main man for the offense next year, he could use one final big performance.

What Will Happen: Illinois is limping into the game and is overdue to come up with a big, big game. Either the offense will blow up and destroy the Gophers from the start, or it'll be another sixty minutes of fizzle and Minnesota will play inspired in its final game of the season. Jerry Kill's bunch will come up with the win to go into the offseason on a high note.

CFN Prediction: Minnesota 26 … Illinois 24

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