Illinois at Minnesota, Nov. 3 — Gophers coach Tim Brewster faces his alma mater for the first time, which adds some intrigue. This also might be the Gophers' final shot at winning again this season. Another interesting angle: Brewster's son, Clint, originally committed to Illinois but changed his mind the week before signing day and joined his father. As a result, quarterback Phil Haig, who had been committed to Minnesota, changed his decision and signed with Illinois.
The Illini seek to clinch a bowl berth at a place that, to be kind, hasn't been their favorite venue. Illinois hasn't won at the Metrodome since 1994 and most of the losses have been blowouts. This is the first meeting between Ron Zook and Tim Brewster — two coaches generally acknowledged to be big-time recruiters yet iffy in-game decision-makers. Not only do they want to prove those labels wrong, they want to get in the first shot on the other guy in what could prove to be a long-standing rivalry.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Gophers were held without an offensive touchdown for the first time in 12 games last week. Freshman quarterback Adam Weber had his worst outing by completing only 14 of 30 passes for 99 yards. The offense has looked completely out of synch the past two games. Injuries have been part of the problem, but the entire offense looks confused at this point. They were only 2-of-13 on third down against Michigan.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The good news is, the Gophers scored a defensive touchdown, a 46-yard fumble return by safety Dom Barber. The bad news is, they still gave up 561 total yards and a handful of big plays that costly them dearly. The Gophers are starting three true freshmen in the secondary, and they rank last nationally in total defense. They have allowed 701 rushing yards the past two games combined.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB Adam Weber — It has been a rough few weeks for the redshirt freshmen, who heard some grumbling over his play against Michigan. Weber has taken a few steps backward after showing a lot of promise early. He needs to play well to regain some of his confidence.
TB Duane Bennett — The true freshman ran hard and tough against Michigan, finishing with 106 yards on 20 carries. He became the first Gophers freshman to crack 100 rushing yards since Laurence Maroney in 2003.
LB Deon Hightower — He has been good against the run since moving to middle linebacker, and the Gophers need more of that against an Illinois offense that ranks eighth nationally in rushing. Hightower also has a team-high eight tackles for loss.
ROSTER REPORT: Gophers coach Tim Brewster is sticking with 5-foot-9 true freshman cornerback Ryan Collado as his starter, even though he was exploited by Michigan's Mario Manningham last week.
Wide receiver Eric Decker suffered a slight knee injury but is expected to play.
Senior linebackers Mike Sherels (hamstring) and John Shevlin (shoulder) and defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg (shoulder, wrist) have played sparingly or not at all in recent weeks and might not be a factor this week either.
Kevin Mannion, a converted safety, will get his second-consecutive start at weak-side linebacker.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The only thing I'm concerned about is helping our kids win a game because we all know we need it. That is the only thing that matters to me. All the other story lines surrounding it don't matter." — Minnesota coach Tim Brewster on facing his alma mater, Illinois.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: With opposing defenses making RB Rashard Mendenhall their top priority, the Illini have had to refocus their attack over the last few weeks. Illinois still leads the Big Ten in rushing with 240.6 yards per game as it has done more running between the tackles. QB Juice Williams, in particular, has benefited from teams' overzealous desire to slow down Mendenhall. Williams posted season-highs for rushing yards (99) and passing yards (145) in last week's win over Ball State.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Three weeks in a row, Illinois has struggled to stop teams from converting third downs — regardless of the distance. The Illini have been bothered by good passers all year, though they became one of the few teams to hold Ball State's Nate Davis to less than a 50 percent completion rate. Expect Minnesota to challenge Illinois' secondary with its top-flight receivers outside and its excellent tight end in the deep middle.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: RB Rashard Mendenhall — With last week's 189-yard rushing effort, Mendenhall became the eighth player in Illinois history to crack the 1,000-yard mark for a single season. He also jumped to 13th place on the all-time rushing list with 1,971 yards. If he maintains this year's 123.7 yards per game average the rest of the way — including a bowl game — he'll shatter the school's single-season mark and jump all the way to eighth place on the all-time list. Not bad for a kid who had one career start and 126 carries entering the year.
QB Juice Williams — Instead of watching backup Eddie McGee come in for him late in the game, Williams finally got to play the whole way and delivered down the stretch in last week's win against Ball State. Can he carry that confidence into the Metrodome? The Gophers are terrible against both the run and the pass, so this could be an additional opportunity to gain confidence.
WR Arrelious Benn — He set Illinois' freshman record for receiving yards (556) in last week's game. This week, he needs only two catches to set the school record for receptions by a freshman.
ROSTER REPORT: Starting TE Michael Hoomanawanui (undetermined back issue) missed the last two games, but he should be good to go for Minnesota. The return of "Uh-Oh," who's a solid blocker, will give a boost to the running game.
DE Derek Walker (ankle) sat out last week's game against Ball State in order to ensure his health for Minnesota — and that gamble seems to have paid off. He should make his 32nd career start against the Gophers.
WR Kyle Hudson (sore foot) sat out against Ball State, too, and should be available. Whether he plays much remains to be seen as senior DaJuan Warren did fine as the starting flanker and punt returner.
These players have already undergone season-ending surgery, or soon will: WR Chris James (knee), CB Travon Bellamy (shoulder) and RB Troy Pollard (knee).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Their program, it's going to take off. They're probably way ahead of where we were our first year." — Illinois coach Ron Zook talking up Minnesota's 1-8 club.
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