Gophers ‘D’ will have toughest task yet

When Minnesota visits Illinois this weekend, it will be homecoming in two senses of the word. The Illini will be playing their annual homecoming game, while Gophers head coach Tim Brewster will be coming home to his alma mater. MinnesotaâÄôs second year coach may have played his college ball as a tight end at Illinois, but at 11 a.m. Saturday he and his team will be doing all they can to spoil IllinoisâÄô first Big Ten game of the season at Memorial Stadium. The Gophers (5-1 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) will try to erase the memory of last yearâÄôs meeting with the Illini as well. ItâÄôs tough to pick out the low point of a 1-11 season, but IllinoisâÄô (3-2, 1-1) shellacking of Minnesota in early November has to be in the running. âÄúI wouldn’t say the Illinois game was the worst moment of last season, because when you don’t win there are many bad times,âÄù senior linebacker Steve Davis said. âÄúThat was the one game where we really were blown out.âÄù The Illini shredded the Gophers defense for 655 yards in the game; quarterback Juice Williams and running back Rashard Mendenhall accounted for 541 of them. The contest was essentially over by halftime, with Illinois up 34-10. The Illini coasted through the second half for a 44-17 victory. It was MinnesotaâÄôs worst defensive performance in an abysmal defensive season. The bitter taste of that loss may linger for many returning Gophers, but SaturdayâÄôs game will allow them the opportunity to prove that Minnesota football 2008 is a vast improvement from Minnesota football 2007 âÄî especially in terms of defense. âÄúI donâÄôt think that you can undersell or underplay the improvement of our defense,âÄù Brewster said Tuesday, just days after the Gophers held a usually explosive Indiana offense to seven points. But perhaps a better measure of MinnesotaâÄôs improvement will come from its performance this weekend. Illinois lost Mendenhall to the NFL, but Williams is still at the helm of the offense and playing as well as ever. He passed for two touchdowns and ran for a pair of scores last week against Michigan, piling up 310 yards through the air and 121 on the ground. Slowing him will be a tall task, but one that seems far more manageable this time around. âÄúI think our defensive players are really playing with an air of confidence, an edge to them that good defenses have to play [with],âÄù Brewster said. To have a chance at upsetting the Illini, the Gophers offense will need to gain its edge back as well. While the defense was asserting its dominance over the Hoosiers last week, Minnesota was struggling to find the end zone. It failed to find the end zone more than once for the first time all year, and after scoring 30-plus in all four nonconference games, the Gophers have put up 21 and 16 in their first two Big Ten matchups. Some of the problems, especially against Indiana, can be attributed to the protection, or lack thereof, of sophomore quarterback Adam Weber. The Hoosiers got to him four times , and he seemed to be releasing the ball before he wanted to all game. âÄúI have a lot of faith in our offensive line, but got a little bit frustrated last week,âÄù Weber said. âÄúBut I think thatâÄôs good. ItâÄôs good that weâÄôre getting frustrated at not playing to the best of our ability.âÄù Though he was ducking and scrambling all game, Weber somehow still managed to find his favorite target. Junior wide receiver Eric Decker snagged a career-high 13 balls for a career-high 190 yards, and vaulted into the national lead for total receiving yards with 696. The Gophers and Weber have relied on Decker all year and likely will again Saturday. Even when opponents key on him, offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar keeps Decker on the move with a variety of schemes and formations. So far, no team has been able to neutralize him completely. Until one does, donâÄôt expect Minnesota to change what itâÄôs doing. âÄúI think a lot of people are concerned or nervous that weâÄôre throwing to Eric too much,âÄù Weber said. âÄúI donâÄôt think thatâÄôs a problem; kid catches the ball, whatâÄôs the problem with that?âÄù