Before each Minnesota football game, GopherIllustrated will ask five questions of an opposing beat writer. This week, we spoke with Illinois publisher Jeremy Werner of the IlliniInquierer.com (Champaign, Illinois) to preview the Gophers' Week 9 away game against the Illinois Fighting Illini.
1) Illinois seemed to have a lot of positive momentum coming into 2016 season under Lovie Smith, but things haven't been going well of late with the Illini losing five of their last six games. What's going wrong with the Illini right now?
JW: First-year Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman's bold hire of Lovie Smith instantly jolted awake a slumbering Illini football fan base. Smith adds instant credibility and much-needed stability to Illinois. Whitman has made an unprecedented investment in Illinois football (Smith's six-year, $21 million deal plus a $4 million annual staff pool that is among the highest in the Big Ten), and fans responded with a Week 2 sellout against North Carolina.
But that 48-23 loss, a 34-10 loss to Western Michigan and a 34-31 overtime loss to Purdue have been a harsh reminder: Lovie doesn't have a magic wand. Illinois is a massive rebuild. Tim Beckman not only left the program in an embarrassing and alarming abuse scandal, but he left the roster with huge holes due to recruiting failures. Unlike most first-year coaches, Smith doesn't even have a recruiting class under his belt due to his late hire in March. Grad transfer linebacker Hardy Nickerson is his only recruit on the roster. He will need multiple recruiting classes to turn this thing around.
As for this team, it appears to be going through the same issue that most new coaches encounter (see Mike Riley at Nebraska). The Illini staff has needed time to learn its personnel, while the players have seemingly struggled to perfect the new coaches' schemes. Even offensive coordinator Garrick McGee admitted a few weeks ago that he was trying to hard to fit the personnel to his scheme. The offense simply lacks talent, especially at wide receiver and up front. The defense, however, has been a disappointment, especially against the run.
In recent weeks, the staff has shaken up the starting lineup with a preference for young players over the veterans. The youth movement is underway.
2) Illinois has played three different quarterbacks in their last three games, including most recently against Michigan, redshirt freshman Jeff George Jr. Who are you expecting Lovie to play this weekend, and what can Gopher fans expect from that quarterback?
JW: If Lovie tells you, let us know. This obviously is the story of the week and possibly the story of the rest of the season.
Lunt has a huge arm and makes the type of NFL throws that few college quarterbacks can make. However, he's extremely immobile and the coaching staff challenged him to "lay it on the line" more often -- a direct question of his toughness and leadership. To be fair, Lunt has a shaky offensive line and the worst receiving corps in the Big Ten. Not exactly the ideal environment for a pocket passer.
Lunt left the Purdue game with a back injury. He dressed for practice last week but didn't dress for Saturday's game. A source told me Illinois is optimistic that he will play this week. Redshirt sophomore Chayce Crouch replaced Lunt during the Purdue game and ignited the offense due to his tough and athletic running ability. But he injured his shoulder early on in the Rutgers game. He gutted it out the rest of the game to help lead Illinois to the win, but the shoulder injury is season-threatening.
Jeff George Jr. obviously brought some excitement given his father. Like Jeff Sr., Jeff Jr. has a big arm. But he was thrown to the wolves at Michigan and expectedly struggled. He showed some toughness but committed two turnovers and missed some open throws.
My bet is on Lunt making his return. He's got a big arm and a much better option than George Jr. due to his talent and experience. But he is easier to defend than Crouch given the Illini's lack of playmakers at receiver.
3) Running back Kendrick Foster and wide receiver Malik Turner seem to be the two workhorses for this Illinois offense, how key have they been for Fighting Illini this season?
JW: Turner has picked up where he left off late last season. He's a big, physical and athletic target who torches zone coverage, though coaches want to see him improve against press man. He's a legit No. 1 receiver who has made several #SCTop10 catches this season. But he doesn't have any help. Turner accounts for 43 percent of the Illini's receiving yards, the highest percentage of any FBS receiver. He's on pace for about 900 yards. The next-best receiver is on pace for about 180. The Illini lack speed and separation ability. They certainly miss 2014 Freshman All-American Mike Dudek, who is sitting out his second straight season due to a torn ACL.
Foster is a huge surprise. During the preseason, Lovie praised sophomore Ke'Shawn Vaughn as a back who could start on any team in the Big Ten. Three games into the season, redshirt freshman Reggie Corbin and Foster -- a player who wanted to transfer after last season -- have taken almost all of Vaughn's carries. Foster dropped his body fat from about 16 percent to 10 percent and has shread about 0.2 seconds off his 40-time. He transformed his body and transformed his game from a tough plodder to a guy with home-run ability, but he's still tough and gets the extra yards. Corbin is more of a scatback, and while he doesn't have elite speed, he can make a defender miss in a phonebooth with his quick-cut ability.
4) On defense, Illinois defenders Hardy Nickerson and Dawaune Smoot are having fantastic seasons thus far, how would you asses their play, and who are some other names to lookout on defense?
JW: Smoot may be a first-round draft pick due to his elite rushing ability, but Illinois needs him to do it more consistently. Carroll Phillips has been a breakout star and will be drafted as well. He's not as strong as Smoot but is an elite speed rusher off the edge. The two make up the Big Ten's best pass-rushing duo, but they need to be more consistent against the run -- as does the rest of the team.
Nickerson also will get a shot at the NFL. He gave Illinois exactly what it needed: a smart, instinctive tackler with sideline to sideline speed who also acts as a coach on the field. He's just surrounded by a lot of unproven, young defenders. Trying to find a spark, the Illini have benched several seniors for sophomores and freshmen. Sophomore linebackers Tre Watson and Julian Jones have shown flashes but are inconsistent. Freshmen safeties Stanley Green and Patrick Nelson both have shown they aren't scared to lay some big hits in run support, but both have struggled in pass coverage.
5) What are the keys for Illinois if they're going to beat the Gophers at home, and what's your score prediction for the Minnesota vs. Illinois game, and why?
JW: Illinois hasn't yet put four quality quarters together against an FBS team, showing inconsistencies in basically every aspect. The biggest keys will come on defense, however. The Illini have really struggled to contain the run, especially misdirection and zone-read option. The defensive line can get after Mitch Leidner but Minnesota's strong rushing attack poses problems. Anyone who remembers Lovie's days with the Chicago Bears also knows that Lovie ball is all about winning the turnover battle. The Illini's two wins included a huge advantage in the turnover margin. For them to beat a solid Big Ten team -- and make up for their other flaws -- they'll need to win the turnover battle.
Minnesota fans don't seem that confident in their team following a way-too-close win over Rutgers, but they have the better, more established team. Illinois will have opportunities, sure, but this is a team still struggling to find an identity and any type of consistency.
Prediction: Minnesota 28, Illinois 20