The Illini have four games left to show a little life.
Not to play for a conference championship. Not to play for a bowl game. Just to show that they are not one of the most disappointing teams in the country.
While the Illini close with Indiana and Northwestern — two games that appear to be winnable — the next two games are likely to be more of the same. Illinois hosts Minnesota this week and travels to Iowa on Nov. 1. The Gophers have one of the best running games in the country, while Iowa has a nasty defense that has been instrumental in its winning record.
Head coach Ron Turner has a tough decision to make at the quarterback position. Starter Jon Beutjer will miss the rest of the season because of a back problem and will have surgery. Freshman Chris Pazan got the start in the loss to Michigan over senior Dustin Ward. However, Ward completed all five of his passes in relief and Turner may turn to him if he wants to avoid big-time losses against Minnesota and Iowa.
While playing Pazan may be better for the Illini in the long run, Turner might be feeling the heat to win now ... which means Ward could be a safer pick.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Minnesota defense has been vulnerable in the past two games against Michigan and Michigan State. If head coach Ron Turner wants to take advantage of the Gophers, he may decide to start veteran Dustin Ward over freshman Chris Pazan. Freshman Pierre Thomas will get the start at running back over E.B. Halsey, who sprained his knee against the Wolverines.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: DE Derrick Strong should be able to play against Minnesota despite suffering an ankle injury against Michigan. Strong is the most physical defender on the team and has played with a good effort this year. If he can't play, the Illini may not have a chance against Minnesota's impressive running game. CB Christian Morton has been replaced by Taman Jordan in the starting lineup.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's an athlete's worst nightmare. My leg started getting numb. I started getting pins and needles and it just started going out on me a little bit. I knew it was something more than just back pain." — Illinois QB Jon Beutjer, who will miss the rest of the season as a result of back injury that will require surgery.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Minnesota at Illinois, Oct. 25 — The Gophers are the No. 1 scoring team in the Big Ten, averaging 40.2 points. They have lost two games in a row vs. Michigan and Michigan State, but a late comeback against the Spartans demonstrated that Glen Mason's team had plenty of fighting spirit. RBs Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney are explosive backs who can break big plays, while QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq has a 13-4 TD-interception ratio and is one of the most underrated players in the Big Ten.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB Dustin Ward — If Ward gets the start, he'll give the Illini the best chance of coming up with the upset over Minnesota. Ward was 5-of-5 against Michigan and is capable of leading the offense and making fewer mistakes than freshman Chris Pazan.
RB Pierre Thomas — With E.B. Halsey likely out because of a sprained knee, Thomas should be the starting running back. Thomas scored both of Illinois' touchdowns against Michigan and has size and speed.
INJURY IMPACT: Starting quarterback Jon Beutjer (back) is out for the rest of the season. Running back E.B. Halsey (knee) is questionable for Saturday's game against Minnesota. Defensive lineman Derrick Strong (ankle) is probable. Defensive back Alan Ball (shoulder) is sidelined indefinitely.
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