‘Flying Illini’ bring pass attack to Metrodome

by Brian Hall

Minnesota cornerback Mike Lehan can’t recall the particular details of the Gophers’ 25-14 loss in Champaign last season.

Perhaps he doesn’t want to remember the hurt Illini flanker Brandon Lloyd put on Minnesota’s secondary.

Lloyd compiled 168 yards on nine catches and scored his team’s only two touchdowns, a performance the Gophers probably attempted to erase from their collective memories the minute the game ended.

The Gophers get their shot at redemption as they host Illinois in a rare Thursday night affair. Minnesota knows it must stop the Illini’s long ball attack.

“They want to air it out,” Lehan said. “No matter how you look at it, they are the defending Big Ten champions. They’re not a 1-4 team. It will be a tough matchup.”

Lloyd and fellow receiver Walter Young have helped Illinois (1-4, 0-1) post the conference’s top passing offense with 302.6 yards per game.

Lloyd is second in the Big Ten with 29 grabs and third with 501 yards. Last week against Michigan the junior posted conference highs with 10 catches and 156 yards receiving.

Young has chimed in with 66.8 yards per game and three touchdowns.

“(Lloyd’s) a darn good receiver,” Gophers coach Glen Mason said. “As a receiving corps, they are probably the best, across the board, there is in the Big Ten, which presents a lot of problems.

“You have to do everything you possibly can to work on not getting beat deep, which is easier said than done.”

This season, Minnesota (4-1, 0-1 Big Ten) might have the answer for Lloyd and Illinois’ other weapons.

The Gophers lead the conference in pass defense, giving up only 145.4 yards a game through the air, a statistic which ranks 12th nationally.

“They do a great job,” Illini coach Ron Turner said. “They are very sound at what they do. They don’t give up big plays. They have good athletes and they play extremely hard and fast.”

The Illini passing attack will put pressure on Minnesota team co-captain Lehan and the rest of the Gophers secondary.

“We have to be sound this game,” safety Justin Isom said. “They can fly. They can run. They throw the ball deep. So, we have to be sound in all of our techniques.”

Lehan is the only starting senior on the defense and is generally regarded as the top cover corner on the team.

Against Purdue last weekend Lehan recorded his 30th pass break-up to pull even with Willie Middlebrooks for first in Minnesota history.

Mason believes it will take a total effort to stop Lloyd, Young and quarterback Jon Beutjer. But Lehan, who made an interception against Illinois last season, knows his play will come a long way in deciding Thursday’s outcome.

“I have a job to do each week,” Lehan said. “Being a corner you know people are going to catch balls on you, but hopefully the balls they do catch are ones that you can drive and tackle and ones that don’t light up the scoreboard.”

In other words, Lehan wants to prevent Lloyd from repeating last season’s performance.