Inside Slant: Minnesota vs. Illinois

Minnesota's path to a bowl game is clear. Saturday's game against Illinois is a must-win situation. With a 5-4 record, the Gophers need one more victory to become bowl eligible and a road game against the struggling Illini is the best chance to do that, at least if one goes by what's happened this season.

While the Gophers have lost four of five in Big Ten play, Illinois has been even worse. The Illini are 0-5 in the conference and have been outscored by an average of 26.8 points in league games. Despite those numbers, coach Jerry Kill is more concerned about his own team than he is the Illini's problems.

"We know we need to play better," he said. "Our players know they need to be ready."

The Gophers are coming off a 35-13 home loss to Michigan. Minnesota couldn't contain the Wolverines even though star quarterback Denard Robinson didn't play because of an elbow injury. The Gophers played poorly on both sides of the ball after scoring an early touchdown to take a 7-0 lead.

Kill thought the Gophers would carry the momentum from the 44-28 win over Purdue into last week's game. That didn't happen and the second-year coach hopes his players learned something from their latest defeat.

"I don't have to be tough on them," he said. "They are going to be tough on themselves. They want to make those plays. That's really what the game of football comes down to. You can go every Saturday. The team that makes the most plays generally wins."

Losing to Illinois, which is 2-7 overall and coming off a 52-22 rout to Ohio State, would put Minnesota's chances to become bowl eligible in jeopardy. The Gophers travel to Nebraska, which is tied for first place in the Legends Division next week, and ends the season at home against Michigan State. Although the Spartans have been inconsistent, Minnesota will be an underdog in that game.

The Gophers are still looking for their first road Big Ten win under coach Jerry Kill. Minnesota is 0-6 in league road games since Kill took over following the 2010 season. The Gophers' only road win under Kill came in this season's opener, a 30-27 victory over UNLV in triple overtime.

Coach Jerry Kill's decision to go for a fake field goal blew up against Michigan. The call came with Minnesota trailing 14-7 and facing a fourth down at Michigan's 16-yard line early in the third quarter. A pass to quarterback Philip Nelson gained five yards. The Wolverines drove for a touchdown and took a 21-7 lead.

"A field goal there gets it to 14-10, but they're moving the ball," Kill said in the St. Paul Pioneer-Press. "We know they're a pretty good football team. Nobody covered (Nelson); we just threw it behind. Otherwise, we've got a great opportunity to walk into the end zone. Sometimes, whether it's an onside kick, which we did against Iowa you make a few coaching calls to go try to make something happen."

Sophomore running back Donnell Kirkwood and redshirt freshman right tackle Josh Campion are the only two offensive players to have started all nine games this season.

SERIES HISTORY: Minnesota leads Illinois 34-28-3 (last meeting, 2011, 27-7 Minnesota)

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The offense has struggled in conference play. Minnesota has been held to 13 points in four of its five Big Ten games, including last week's loss to Michigan. The only exception was a 44-point explosion against Purdue. As has been the case too often, the offensive line hasn't matched up well against league opponents and that has affected the running game. The Michigan loss was a prime example of that problem. Donnell Kirkwood led the Gophers with 58 yards on 16 carries. Freshman Rodrick Williams Jr. picked up 38 yards on nine carries. True freshman Philip Nelson will make his fourth career start against Illinois. He has thrown a touchdown pass in each of his first three starts.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The defense struggled against Michigan by allowing 389 total yards. The Gophers started out well, forcing a three-and-out on the first series for only the second time this season. Minnesota allowed nine total yards in the first quarter and didn't give up a first down until the 13:35 mark of the second period. The defense then faded as Michigan's superiority along the line of scrimmage wore down the Gophers. Minnesota allowed 17 first downs over the final three quarters. After recording 10 pass breakups against Purdue, the Gophers had one last week.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Every Saturday is a little bit different. We just need to work. We have got young players. We have got kids learning through some difficult times, and you just go back to work and then you make some of those plays." Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, on what the Gophers are facing going into Saturday's game against Illinois.

THIS WEEK'S GAME: Minnesota at Illinois, Nov. 5 The Gophers have won the last two meetings, including a 38-34 victory at Champaign two years ago under interim head coach Jeff Horton, who replaced the fired Tim Brewster with five games remaining in the 2010 season. Minnesota rolled to a 27-7 win in last season's final game. The Illini have lost 11 straight Big Ten games.

KEYS TO THE GAME: As its record would indicate, Illinois has struggled in all aspects of the game. Minnesota's defense should have an advantage since the Illini average 18.4 points a game. Illinois allows 33.1 points and has problems stopping the run, which is good news for the offensive line and running back Donnell Kirkwood.


QB Philip Nelson Starting a true freshman on the road is always a risky proposition. Nelson's first career start came against Wisconsin on Oct. 20. He completed 13-of-24 passes for 149 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Nelson has completed 41-of-75 passes for six touchdowns and hasn't been picked off in his last two games.

P Christian Eldred The sophomore punted three times against Michigan with each kick landing inside the 20-yard line. Eldred averaged 42.3 yards last week. He has 13 punts inside the 20 this season.

WR MarQueis Gray Now playing receiver, Gray has 11 receptions and is averaging 10.5 yards a catch. He came up with a big diving grab against Michigan. The senior, who is still hobbled by the sprained left ankle that prompted the position change, has yet to score a touchdown as a receiver. Gray could still get an occasional snap at quarterback if his ankle improves.


WR A.J. Barker didn't play against Michigan because of an ankle injury. He hurt the ankle against Purdue and tweaked it again in warmups last week. Barker leads the team with seven touchdown receptions and averages 19.2 yards on 30 catches.

LT Ed Olson has missed the last four games with an ankle injury. He went through warmups last week before the coaches decided to sit him out again. Marek Lenkiewicz has started the last three games.

WR Jamel Harbison tore the ACL in his right knee against UNLV and is out for the season.

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