Minnesota (5-2) vs. Illinois (2-5)
Time: 11:00 A.M. CT, Saturday, October 29th
TV: BTN - Kevin Kugler (Play by Play), Matt Millen (Analyst) and Lisa Lyington (Sideline)
Last week: Minnesota beat Rutgers at home 34-32, and Illinois lost to Michigan on the road, 41-8
All-time series: Minnesota 36-29-3 (Minnesota won 32-23 at home in November of 2015)
Vegas betting line: Minnesota (-5)
Know Your Enemy: Five questions with Illinois publisher Jeremy Werner
Five things you need to know
1. Minnesota travels to Illinois this Saturday for a meeting with the Illini. The Gophers lead the all-time series between the schools with a record of 36-29-3 and have won 11 of the last 15 meetings dating back to 1996. The Gophers posted a 32-23 home last season after dropping a 28-24 road decision in 2014. Last year, Shannon Brooks led the Gophers to victory as he rushed 17 times for 174 yards and three touchdowns. The 174 yards by Brooks were 10th most ever by a Minnesota freshman running back and his three touchdowns covered 75, 38 and five yards.
2. Saturday’s game against the Illini will be Minnesota’s sixth 11 a.m. game this year and the fifth consecutive for the Gophers. Minnesota, which is 5-2 overall, is 4-1 in 11 a.m. games this season (wins against Indiana State, Colorado State, Maryland and Rutgers; loss was to Iowa) and is 15-5 in its last 20 games that have started at 11 a.m. (start of the 2013 season).
3. The Minnesota defense has allowed only 44 points in the first half this season and 28 of those came in non-conference action (14 vs. Oregon State and 7 against Indiana State and Colorado State). The Gophers have allowed only one touchdown (to Rutgers) in the first half of a Big Ten game this year and have allowed only 16 points (3 to Penn State, 3 to Iowa, 0 to Maryland and 10 to Rutgers) in the first half of their four conference games. Minnesota allowed one touchdown in consecutive games against Iowa and Maryland earlier this season. The last time Minnesota allowed one touchdown in consecutive Big Ten games was 2003, when it beat Illinois 35-10 and Indiana 55-7. Minnesota allows 22.9 points against this season, which ranks 38th in the nation.
4. The Gophers have a penchant for scoring in the final minutes of the first half or of the game this year. Minnesota has scored 217 points this season and 39 (3 TDs, 3 PATs and 6 FGs) of those (17.9% of total season points) have come in the finals 91 seconds of the first half or of the game. Minnesota has scored points under these circumstances in nine quarters and registered points at the end of both halves against Oregon State, Penn State and Maryland and at the end of the first half against Indiana State and Colorado State. Minnesota kicked a game-winning 28-yard field goal against Rutgers with six seconds left last week.
5. Rodney Smith leads the Big Ten with an average of 143.0 all-purpose yards per game. He had 257 (111 rush, 27 receiving and 119 kick return) against Rutgers, which was the 12th most in school history and most since Troy Stoudermire had 290 against Iowa in 2008. Smith’s 257 yards are the most for a Gopher running back since Laurence Maroney had 258 against Wisconsin in 2005. Prior to Smith, the last Gopher to notch 200 all-purpose yards was David Cobb (233 at Michigan in 2014). Smith has four 100-yard rushing games this year and eight rushing touchdowns. His 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Rutgers was the first for a Gopher running back since Duane Bennett (96 yards) vs. Wisconsin in 2011.
Illinois players to watch
1) Jeff George Jr., quarterback: 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.To be fair, George has a shaky offensive line and the worst receiving corps in the Big Ten. Not exactly the ideal environment for a pocket passer.
2) Malik Turner, wide receiver: 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.
3) Dawaune Smoot, defensive end: 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.
Keys to the game
1. Play a complete game in all three facets of football: Minnesota fans have yet to see their Golden Gophers football team play a complete game this season, and this weekend on the road against Illinois would be a great time to start. We've seen games where the defense and special teams play well (Maryland), but not the offense, plus we've see that with the offense and special teams (Penn State), but not the defense. With KiAnte Hardin back in at corner for Minnesota, this Gopher defense has taken their play to the next level, allowing their last two Big Ten opponents to only score 14 and 10 points respectively.
On offense, they need their senior quarterback in Mitch Leidner to limit the turnovers, Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks to continue this offense on the ground, their wide receivers to start creating consistent separation on short, intermediate and deep routes and the offensive line needs to be physical up front in the run game. On defense, the front four has to stop the run and start generating more consistent pressure on passing downs. Linebackers have to get off blocks and make plays, and the defensive backs needs to be able to cover down field. Special teams wise, Emmit Carpenter has to keep the kickoffs in bounds, Ryan Santoso has to get over the "yips", and the coverage and return units need to keep up their play.
If Minnesota can finally play a complete game this weekend, it should be a double digit road victory.
2. Get the running game going, and stop the Illini running game: My guess is the game plan for Minnesota is going to be very similar to last week where fans should expect another heavy dose of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks in the run game. I'd be shocked if those two don't get 20 touches again, and maybe we even see Smith / Brooks flexed out wide as Minnesota has to try and manufacture some big plays. Illinois run defense is Big Ten play ranks 12th of 14 teams, as they're giving up 226.8 yards per game. Minnesota faced the worst run defense in the Big Ten last week, and gets the second to worst next week in Purdue. The Gophers offensive line is banged up right now with numerous guys nursing various injuries, but the staff is hopeful that they'll be getting stud tackle Jonah Pirsig back from a high ankle sprain this weekend. Should be another 200+ yard game on the ground for the Minnesota offense.
Illinois rushing attack has actually been extremely effective so far in Big Ten play with the Illini averaging 5.6 ypc, but the issue is, Illinois is dead last in time of possession, so they haven't had the game scripts to be able to utilize their backs. Kendrick Foster and Ke'Shawn Vaughn are a potent two headed running attack, so this run defense is going to be tested again this week. Illinois has rotated in three different quarterbacks the last three weeks, and it looks like redshirt freshman Jeff George Jr. will be getting only his second career start, so if Minnesota's able to make him pass, their could be more turnovers to be had.
3. Clean up the penalties: I swear I'm not a broken record here, but for the seemingly sixth week in a row now, we have to talk about penalities. 56 penalties through seven games, and while we all know that's unacceptable, it needs to start changing. Minnesota's averaging eight penalties a game for 66 yards, and that's 66 yards too many that they're just giving away. You can't give away free possessions in the Big Ten and expect to win. The team discipline needs to start to correct itself and it needs to start this week against Illinois.
They'll be going against the team though that is leading the Big Ten in penalties so far. Illinois is averaging 7.5 penalities a game for 69.5 yards, and both the number of penalities and the penalty yards are the worst in Big Ten play.
It's no secret that Minnesota's offense is lacking big plays here so far through seven games.
They rank 128 of 128 FBS teams in terms of their longest pass completion of 34 yards. The next worst team has a 44 yard completion, so Minnesota is the worst in the FBS by 10 yards in the passing game. They are also tied for second to last of all FBS teams in 30+ yard gains, with only nine on the season. The only power five team with less is Stanford.
There is hope though it could potentially change this weekend.
Illinois' pass defense is 13th of 14 Big Ten teams in yards per passing completion at 7.8. They also give opposing quarterbacks a lot of time to work with as the Illini also rank dead last in sacks as well.
Some other indicators that Minnesota's offense could get on track, is the fact that they'll have the ball more often than not against Illinois. They rank dead last in time of possession, and are also the worst team on third down in the Big Ten, as opponents are converting third downs at a 58.3% clip. Illinois offense is also the worst team offensively on third down, as they're a league worst 11 of 43 on third down opportunities, and that leads into their last place ranking in time of possession. All that points to Minnesota being able to run more plays than usual, which would mean they'd have more chances to break off these big plays they've been lacking.
Minnesota's facing an underwhelming offense, and underachieving defense this weekend, and I believe they'll be able to take advantage of both. I expect Smith and Brooks to be able to move the ball once again on the ground, and that the defense with Hardin back in the fold will firm up to what they've been their last two games with him in the lineup.
I see this as Minnesota's third straight Big Ten victory.