ejuvenated Illini look for revenge at Dome

You can call it a wake-up call. You can call it a slap to the face. Whatever you call it, the Illinois football team will know exactly what you’re talking about.
It was the 37-7 trouncing Minnesota put on the Illini last season in Champaign — which appeared to mark the end of any postseason hope for Illinois.
That’s when things changed.
The following week, the Illini went into Michigan’s Big House and pulled out a 35-29 win.
Three weeks later, they went into Ohio State’s Horseshoe and came away with a 46-20 victory.
By late December, Illinois, who went 0-11 in 1997 and 3-8 in 1998, all of a sudden was in a bowl game.
The season’s turnaround was something Gophers coach Glen Mason called “truly amazing.”
“Do you know how tough it is to get beat like they did, and then go win at Michigan?” Mason said. “Do you have any idea? No. I guarantee you, it’s tough.
“And then to follow it up and go and beat Ohio State the way they beat Ohio State. Do you know how tough that is?”
Tough wouldn’t be a word to describe what Illinois did. Nearly impossible is closer. Last year’s Illini team was the first team since Michigan State in 1951 to beat both the Wolverines and Buckeyes on the road in the same season.
So what gave Illinois the jump-start?
“We refocused and we rededicated ourselves to start playing better,” Illinois coach Ron Turner said. “(The reason for the turnaround) was really quite simple.”
That was last year, this is this year.
Now it’s the Gophers (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) who find themselves in a season-saving situation. Minnesota is one loss away from being on the must-win bubble the Illini were on last season.
“As far as going to a bowl game, it’s like a 12-round boxing match,” Gophers junior wideout Ron Johnson said. “We took a couple hits, and we made a couple of hits. We just need to win more rounds than we lose, and hopefully this is one of the ones we’ll win.”
If Minnesota is to land a blow to Illinois, Mason said the Gophers will need to improve on both sides of the ball.
Improvement starts with the defense, which faces Illinois quarterback Kurt Kittner. Kittner threw 24 touchdowns and just five interceptions in his sophomore season.
Thus far this year, Kittner has tossed for nine scores and has been picked off just once. He’s averaging 189.5 yards a game in the air.
“He’s got a hot hand,” Mason said. “Our defense has their work cut out.”
Behind Kittner, the Illini present a formidable ground attack. Led by the duo of Rocky Harvey and Antoineo Harris, Illinois is fifth in the Big Ten in rushing at 215.2 yards a game.
If the Gophers defense has anything going for them it’s the fact they won’t have to face a unique offense like Ohio’s wishbone or Purdue’s five wide receiver sets. The Illini run a two-back offense thatwill allow Minnesota to play its usual defense.
“We’re getting back to playing a lot of man coverage,” sophomore cornerback Mike Lehan said. “We’re going to be playing our football.”
On the Gophers offensive side of the line, all eyes will be on Travis Cole. The junior college transfer is scheduled to make his first start in a Gophers uniform. It was a move made to jump-start Minnesota’s attack.
The Gophers are averaging 382.5 yards a game, but their frequent habit of starting slow has led Mason to make a switch.
Minnesota has scored a total of just 10 points in the first quarter of this year’s ballgames.
It’s unknown if Minnesota can stop Kittner. And it’s unknown if Cole can lead the Gophers offense. One thing is certain to happen against Illinois — the Gophers won’t have to face Heisman candidate Drew Brees.
“Kittner’s human just like us,” junior cornerback Willie Middlebrooks said. “He’s a pretty good quarterback, but he’s no Drew Brees.”

John R. Carter covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]