Illinois comes to town for homecoming

Illini running back Pierre Thomas leads the Big Ten in all-purpose yardage.

Dan Miller

Looking at Illinois’ football team on film this week, one thing stood out for Gophers defensive tackle Anthony Montgomery.

“Their running backs really run hard,” he said. “It looks like they don’t usually go down on first contact, so when they get hit by one guy, we have to have more guys coming – bam, bam, bam.”

The Gophers (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) didn’t have many “bams” in Saturday’s 51-17 loss to Michigan State. They didn’t tally many at Michigan, either.

After two straight dismal defensive games, the homecoming matchup at 1 p.m. Saturday with Illinois (2-5, 0-4 Big Ten) provides another chance to end a vicious cycle.

“I don’t really think it’s inconsistency,” Minnesota safety Justin Fraley said. “I think good things take time. We have a standard on defense, and we’re trying to get back to that standard.”

Talking all season about stopping the run, the Gophers haven’t been able to back it up on the field.

And the good news? A running team is coming to the Metrodome.

Illini sophomore running backs Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey have impressed the Gophers, Minnesota defensive coordinator Greg Hudson said.

“You can always tell when you have tough running backs if they pass protect. And those guys do it; I’ve seen that a lot,” he said.

Thomas has been impressive this season. He is sixth in the NCAA and first in the Big Ten in all-purpose yardage (1,215), averaging 173.6 yards per game.

Averaging 27.9 yards on kickoff returns (17th in the nation), Thomas might be able to find some holes in the Gophers’ suspect special-teams coverage squad, which allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown against Northwestern on Sept. 25 and gave up a game-opening 50-yard kickoff return Saturday to Michigan State’s DeAndra Cobb.

Halsey has posted 387 yards this season on 84 carries.

Hudson said the Illinois offense begins with establishing the ground attack.

“You have to run hard in that offense because they are going to give you the ball a lot,” he said.

Close, but …

Illinois has yet to win a Big Ten game, but it has already played the top four teams in the conference – Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue.

The Illini had success against each of the teams, but turnovers killed its chances.

“I think we’ve had chances to win all four of them,” Illinois coach Ron Turner said. “But we can’t make mistakes, like turning the ball over, if we want to win.

“We’re not interested in being competitive; we’re interested in winning football games,” he said.

And it’s hard to imagine Illinois couldn’t help but smell blood going into Minneapolis.

After watching the film of Minnesota playing Michigan State, Turner said the Gophers “looked like another team.”

“There weren’t a lot of turnovers. Michigan State just moved the ball up and down the field,” he said. “Their offense didn’t give the defense a chance to get off the field. I would have to say it was an emotional letdown.”