Daily Breakdown: Minnesota heavily favored against reeling Illinois

Minnesota looks for its first conference victory against a struggling Illinois team.

The Gopher football team runs onto the field on Saturday, Sept. 30 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Courtney Deutz

The Gopher football team runs onto the field on Saturday, Sept. 30 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Jack Warrick

Minnesota (3-3, 0-3) is going into a winnable game against Illinois (2-4, 0-3) Saturday, looking for their first Big Ten victory of the year.

Last week, the Gophers showed promise after switching to Demry Croft at quarterback near halftime. Illinois fell 35-24 to Rutgers on Saturday. A late fourth quarter rally wasn’t enough for Illinois, and Rutgers got its first conference victory after 16 straight losses in the Big Ten.

When Minnesota runs the ball:

Minnesota ranks seventh in rushing offense in the Big Ten. The Michigan State rush defense was effective against the Gophers rushers in last week’s game. Minnesota’s running back pair, Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, rushed for a combined total of 58 yards, while quarterback Demry Croft had 31 total rush yards. The total rush offense was 74 yards, compared with Michigan State’s 245.

Last week, Illinois let Rutgers run all over them. 

Rutgers put up 274 rushing yards and five running touchdowns against Illinois’ defense. Illinois’ rush defense ranks last in the Big Ten, with 197.2 yards allowed on the ground per game.

Matchup to watch: RB Rodney Smith vs. LB Del’Shawn Phillips

Advantage: Minnesota

When Illinois runs the ball:

The Illinois’ rush offense is ranked the same as their rush defense — last in the Big Ten. Illinois had 86 rushing yards with one running touchdown last week. Mike Epstein, Illinois’ leading rusher, is out for the rest of the season with an injury. Ra’Von Bonner will take over as the workhorse for the running game.

The Gophers run offense is ranked in the Big Ten the same as their rush offense as well — seventh. They have allowed 136 yards per game, but that number has been much bigger since Big Ten play started, averaging over 200 rushing yards allowed per game in the last three games. 

In last week’s Michigan State game, the rush defense floundered and allowed 245 yards on the ground, partly due to the amount of time Michigan State’s offense was on the field — nearly 10 minutes more than the Gophers offense.

Matchup to watch: RB Ra’Von Bonner vs. LB Thomas Barber

Advantage: Minnesota

When Minnesota passes the ball:

Minnesota is ranked at No. 12 in the Big Ten when it passes the ball. The Gophers biggest weapon in the air is Tyler Johnson with 472 receiving yards in the season. The Minneapolis native caught three touchdowns in the fourth quarter against Michigan State. 

He is ranked the fourth leading receiver in the Big Ten. Other than Johnson, the Gophers tight end Brandon Lingen has two touchdowns and 84 yards — he may be out for the game. The receiver group has been plagued with injuries this season.

Illinois’ receiving defense is ranked ninth in the Big Ten, allowing an average of 224 passing yards per game this season. Last week, a decent Rutgers passing offense had just 102 receiving yards, though Rutgers did rely more on the run game.

Matchup to watch: WR Tyler Johnson vs. CB Nate Hobbs

Advantage: Illinois

When Illinois passes the ball:

Illinois is ranked ninth in the Big Ten in terms of passing yards per game. When the rushing game was shut down against Rutgers, the passing game picked up the pace with 308 yards through the air and two touchdowns, although quarterback Jeff George Jr. threw two interceptions on top of that.

Minnesota’s pass defense is ranked sixth in the Big Ten. The Gophers were without safety Antoine Winfield Jr. again in the last game. He had been the leader of the backfield before he was injured in the first conference game. The Michigan State offense had just 120 passing yards in last week’s game against Minnesota.

Matchup to watch: WR Ricky Smalling vs. CB Antonio Shenault

Advantage: Minnesota

Prediction:

Minnesota 35, Illinois 17

Coming off three close conference losses in a row — the last one a three point loss to a ranked Michigan State team — the Gophers will go into this game with a burning desire for a first coach Fleck conference victory — it’s at TCF Bank Stadium on top of that.

The Gophers run game may find its groove against this low-ranked Illinois rush defense.

Daily prediction record: 5-1

What else you need to know:

Start time: 2:30 p.m. CTE, Saturday Oct. 21

Location: TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: KFAN 100.3 FM

Point Spread: Minnesota by 13

Minnesota Depth Chart

Illinois Depth Chart (Page 14)