Illinois (5-5) vs. Minnesota (4-6)
Time: 11:00 A.M CT, Saturday, November 21st
TV: ESPNews - Eamon McAnaney (play-by-play) and Rocky Boiman (Analyst)
Last week: Illinois lost at home to #2 Ohio State, 28-3, Minnesota lost to #5 Iowa on the road 40-35
All-time series: Gophers lead the series 35-29-3 (28-24 Illinois in Champaign, November 2014)
Vegas betting line: Minnesota (-4.5) Over/Under (47 points)
Know Your Enemy: Five questions with Illinois publisher Jeremy Warner
Five things you need to know
1) Minnesota welcomes Illinois to TCF Bank Stadium for an 11 a.m. game on Saturday. The Gophers have played three straight night games and have not played an 11 a.m. game since Oct. 3 at Northwestern. Minnesota’s last home 11 a.m. game was against Kent State on Sept. 10. Minnesota leads the all-time series 35-29-3 against the Illlini, but Illinois upset the Gophers 28-24 last year in Champaign, Ill. (Minnesota won 17-3 at Illinois in 2012). Saturday will mark the third time that Illinois will visit TCF. Minnesota beat the Illini 27-7 at TCF Bank Stadium in 2011, but lost 35-32 in 2009.
2) Saturday’s game against Illinois will be Minnesota’s first game against an unranked opponent since it hosted Nebraska on Oct. 17. Illinois will be the sixth and final (based on current AP poll) unranked team that Minnesota will play this year. The Gophers are 4-1 against non-ranked teams this year, as they have posted wins at Colorado State, against Kent State, against Ohio and at Purdue. Minnesota’s lone loss to a non-ranked team was to Nebraska. The six unranked teams are the fewest that Minnesota will play in a season since it played five unranked teams in 1990 (Minnesota played only 11 games that year).
3) Minnesota is in the midst of playing 10 of 16 games against a ranked team in the AP Top 25 (poll started in 1936) for only the second time in school history. It could be said that Minnesota - according to AP voters - is therefore playing its most difficult schedule ever right now. The Gophers previously played 10 ranked teams in a 16-game span, which included the final three games of the 1990 season, the entire 1991 season and the first two games of the 1992 season (highest ranked team in that stretch was No. 4 Michigan). This year, Minnesota has played No. 1 Ohio State, No. 2 TCU, No. 8 Iowa, No. 15 Michigan and No. 16 Northwestern. Minnesota is also scheduled to play No. 21 Wisconsin. The Gophers ended 2014 with four straight games against No. 8 Ohio State, No. 21 Nebraska, No. 14 Wisconsin and No. 16 Missouri.
4) The Gophers played No. 1 Ohio State, No. 8 Iowa and No. 15 Michigan in their last three games (AP rankings at time of game). The last time Minnesota played three straight games against top 15 teams was 2002 when it played No. 6 Ohio State, No. 13 Michigan and No. 6 Iowa. Baylor is the only other team scheduled to play three straight top 15 opponents. It just played No. 12 Oklahoma and its next two games are against No. 4 Oklahoma State and No. 11 TCU.
5) Minnesota is one of three Big Ten teams to play No. 1 Ohio State and No. 8 Iowa (Indiana, Illinois are the others). The Gophers and Indiana are the only teams to face No. 1 Ohio State, No. 8 Iowa and No. 15 Michigan this year. Minnesota is the only Big Ten team that plays No. 1 Ohio State, No. 8 Iowa, No. 15 Michigan, No. 16 Northwestern and No. 21 Wisconsin (teams combined 44-6 this year). Minnesota is the only team in the nation to play No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 TCU. Minnesota’s six defeats this year have come to teams with a combined 50-11 record (Nebraska has 6 of 11 losses).
Illinois players to watch
1) Wes Lunt, quarterback: Illinois loves to throw the ball through the air as they're averaging 43 passing attempts a game, so the Gophers have to be ready for Illinois to pass a lot on Saturday. Lunt is averaging about 225 yards per game with a touchdown to interception ratio of 3:1.
2) Ke'Shawn Vaughn, running back: Vaughn is Illinois' leading rushing with 661 yards and a six rushing touchdowns. Vaughn faced a tough Ohio State front last week, but the week prior against Purdue, had 16 carries for a 180 yards and two touchdowns against Purdue. Minnesota is a week removed from giving up over 270 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
3) Dawaune Smoot, defensive line: Smoot is leading the Illini defense in both tackles for loss (14.0) and sacks (7.0). Minnesota's offensive line will have to keep an eye on him all day Saturday to keep quarterback Mitch Leidner up right.
Keys to the game
1. Establish the run: Minnesota is averaging nearly 130 yards a game on the ground in the Big Ten, but issue is they've been inconsistent. Either it's gone very well, or not so good. Illinois during the Big Ten season is giving up over 180 yards a game on the ground and 1.3 rushing scores per game which is 4th worst in the Big Ten, so this should be a "get right" game for the Gophers rushing attack.
2. Stopping the pass: The Illini lead the conference in passing attempts per game at 41, so this Gopher secondary has to be ready. Quarterback Wes Lunt isn't a mobile quarterback at all, so Minnesota front seven can get some pressure early on, guys like Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun could have some interceptions on Saturday.
3. Big plays: For the Gophers to end their four game losing streak at home tomorrow, Minnesota will have to have win the big play battle. Minnesota had some big plays of their own last week against Iowa, but couldn't keep the Hawkeyes out of the end zone as they had five rushing touchdowns. The Gophers have to continue building on their offensive success and the defense has to get healthy.
Minnesota is still playing well and battling hard despite the losing streak and I expect them to right the ship at home.