Before each Minnesota football game, GopherDigest will ask five questions of an opposing beat writer. This week, we spoke with Illinois publisher Jeremy Warner, journalist of Illinois' Scout.com site (Champaign, Illinois) to preview the Gophers' Week 12 home game against the 5-5 Illinois Fighting Illini.
1) Illinois is 5-5 after losing their head coach Tim Beckman a week before the season to allegations of player misconduct. How have the players responded to Bill Cubit this season and what do you think the chances are of Illinois retaining him?
JW: Beckman's dismissal probably has had minimal negative effect on this team's performance on the field. That says a lot about Cubit -- whose offense really kept Beckman afloat the previous two seasons -- and a little about Beckman. Few could've handled this unprecedented situation as well as Cubit, who had some success in his eight seasons as head coach at Western Michigan (36-29 MAC record). He's put his own fingerprints on the program in how practices are run, how the week is scheduled, etc. and it's provided a calming influence on the team despite all the turmoil surrounding the program. He's kept the players focused and the staff together.
2) Quarterback Wes Lunt has thrown for over 2200 yards and has a 3:1 touchdown to interception ratio, how key has he been for the Illini offense this season and is Ke'Shawn Vaughn the work horse back for Illinois?
JW: Lunt is a bit of a lightning rod at Illinois. He came in with enormous hype after earning the starting job as a true freshman at Oklahoma State. He put up record passing numbers at nearby Rochester High School, a state powerhouse, and has a lot of the physical traits NFL teams look for in a pocket passer (big, good mechanics, strong arm, accurate). But Lunt and this offense have struggled, especially in the redzone. Much of that has to do with the lack of parts around Lunt due to a rash of injuries to skill players.
3) Looking at the stats, Leo Dawaune Smoot as been a one man wrecking crew for the Illini this season, racking up 14 tackles for loss and seven sacks, how good has he been this season? And who are a few other names to keep an eye on for Illinois on defense?
JW: Illinois' defense needed several players to break out this season -- and they have -- but the main guy for me always was Smoot. He has size (6-foot-3, 265 pounds) and a sprinter's burst (he was a star hurdler in high school). He's going to have a chance to be a 3-4 OLB in the NFL because of that mix and has been the Illini's best playmaker on defense. But he isn't alone. Carroll Phillipsalso has great burst and has been inserted into the starting lineup the last few weeks, allowing future NFL 3-4 defensive end Jihad Ward to move inside to defensive tackle, which gives Illinois more length and size in the middle. The Illini lack speed in the back seven, but they are really stout in run support, especially safety Clayton Fejedelem. The senior -- and former walk-on -- is one of the best hitters and tacklers in the Big Ten. He is fifth in the country with 115 tackles and has had 12 or more tackles in six of the last eight games. The team is really reliant on its front four, which has at least three future pros, maybe four or five.
4) Illinois has outscored their opponents in the first quarter by a total of 65-38, while the Gophers have been worked to a tune of a 61-20 deficit, why has the Illini been so good early in ballgames?
JW: That stat is pretty inflated since 38 of those points came in the first two games against Kent state and Western Illinois. Ten more came against Purdue, so the other 17 points are spread over seven games. So really, Illinois is pretty close to Minnesota in that stat, except their defense has been better. But the first quarter will be telling for this Illini team. Lunt is a rhythm guy. If he's feeling good, he plays well and his arm can be dangerous on certain days. An early lead would give him and the Illini some confidence and alleviate some pressure on a defense that has only played with a lead for about 66 of 300 minutes during Big Ten play -- and 56 of those came against Purdue.
5) What are the keys for the Illini if they're going to beat the Gophers on the road and what's your prediction for the Illinois vs. Minnesota game and why?
JW: Run the ball. In their four Big Ten losses, Illinois has a combined 158 yards rushing on 89 rushes (1.8 yards per carry). When Illinois is able to run the ball, it opens up deep opportunities for Lunt and he becomes much more effective. While Minnesota's defense is good, the Gophers front isn't quite as stout as Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State or Ohio State, so maybe the more finesse, zone-blocking Illinois run game will have more opportunities. The Illini also have to find a way to cash in when it reaches not just the red zone but field goal range. Against Ohio State, Illinois got inside the Ohio State 33-yard line five times and scored just three points. The defense has kept Illinois in games but if the offense struggles, it might have to make a big play.
Prediction: Illinois 24, Minnesota 20