Glen Mason knows he owes a debt of thanks to the Big Ten schedule-makers as much as he does his own team.
After losing back-to-back games to Michigan and Michigan State — the latter by a 51-17 margin — Minnesota appeared to be a team on the edge, ready for a huge fall.
But then came Illinois, a team that hasn't won a Big Ten game since 2002 and one that hadn't won in a domed stadium in 10 years. Illinois is simply a bad football team, and Minnesota was more than happy to take advantage with a 45-0 victory.
The Gophers get another break from the schedule-maker this week with a trip to Indiana. The Hoosiers are winless in the Big Ten and have the worst defense in the conference, allowing 458.1 yards per game.
That should be great news for the running attack, which shook loose for 319 yards against Illinois. While Minnesota has the third-best rushing offense in the nation with an average of 278.4 yards per game, the Gophers' rushing totals had declined for seven straight weeks before the Illini checked in.
That's good news for Mason, who saw Marion Barber run for 138 yards and two TDs against the Illinois and Laurence Maroney add 72 yards and a score. Those totals may even increase against the Hoosiers, who gave up 282 rushing yards to previously dormant Ohio State last week.
But the biggest change for the Gophers came on the defensive side. The Gophers gave up 231 total yards, had 11 tackles for loss, forced two turnovers and collected four sacks.
"You don't get well overnight," Mason said. "Our defense has been capable of playing better. That's what I've maintained, and we played better Saturday. It was a step in the right direction."
The Gophers played with the emotion that had been missing in the meltdown against the Spartans. Defensive coordinator Greg Hudson had a defensive meeting at his home prior to the Illini game and the unit responded with the team's second shutout since in 27 years.
The Gophers should be able to handle themselves at Indiana this week. However, their psyche and motivation will be tested Nov. 6 when they travel to Wisconsin to take on an undefeated and rested Badger team.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Everybody knows about Minnesota's overpowering running game, but the key to this unit may be the passing of QB Bryan Cupito. If he can do a decent job and spread the field in the first half, then the running attack can finish the game in style. Look for Glen Mason to follow that formula at Indiana this week.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: This is not a defense that will remind Big Ten observers of the overpowering units at Purdue and Ohio State last year or Michigan and Wisconsin this year. However, the Gophers make up in speed and hustle what they lack in strength and girth. Look for CB Ukee Dozier — who leads the team with three interceptions — to take a leadership role down the stretch.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We had a talk as a defense and we said we have to come out and play ball. We went straight ahead this time instead of going backwards. We just fired out. That's all we did differently." — LB Kyle McKenzie on how the defense came together prior to the 45-0 win over Illinois and how they intend to keep it together the rest of the season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Minnesota at Indiana, Oct. 30 — After whipping up on subpar Illinois at home, the Gophers should be able to do the same at Indiana. It may not be quite as easy as the 45-0 beating they laid on the Illini, but Minnesota's offense should overpower an Indiana defense that can't stop the run.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB Bryan Cupito — The redshirt sophomore has one of the best jobs in the Big Ten. Since Minnesota can run the ball at will, stopping Cupito is not the first or second option for opposing defenses. As a result, his receivers rarely see double coverage and Cupito will often get enough time to survey the field and find someone open. He has not thrown many interceptions — just three this year — and that allows the Gophers to build impressive leads. Cupito has a good arm and does well on medium-range passes.
WR Jared Ellerson — After an invisible game against Michigan State, Ellerson bounced back with four catches for 68 yards against Illinois. Ellerson has caught 27-407-3 this season and has shown that he can make big plays to break open a game.
ROSTER REPORT: Defensive back Justin Fraley (calf) is questionable for Saturday's game against Indiana. Defensive back Trumaine Banks (leg) is probable.
Another Blowout Opportunity
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