Gophers Preview: Minnesota vs. Illinois

Luke Middendorf

>Last Week

The Gophers were able to stay with No. 19 Michigan early in the game, but partway through the second half the Wolverines aggressively pulled away en route to a 34-10 victory over Minnesota last Saturday. Senior strong safety Dominique Barber gave the Gophers their first defensive touchdown of the year after picking up a fumble and racing 46-yards for the score to put Minnesota up 10-0 in the second quarter. But freshman quarterback Adam Weber could not lead the Gophers offense into the end zone as the offense did not score a touchdown for the first time all season.

The Illini were able to pick up their sixth win of the year to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2001 last Saturday as they bounced Ball State 28-17. Illinois picked up a total of 469 yards of total offense, and junior Rashard Mendenhall ran all over the Cardinals with a total of 189 rushing yards to put him over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Sophomore quarterback Juice Williams also had a prolific rushing day, gaining 99 yards on just 17 carries. Williams, however, was just 7-of-15 passing with two interceptions to keep Ball State in the game until the fourth quarter.

How they Stack Up

Offense

Minnesota will have a chance to rebound against Illinois after one of their worst offensive performances of the season last week at Michigan. Weber threw for just 99 yards on the day, and the Gophers were able to convert just 3 of 13 third-down conversions en route to scoring no offensive touchdowns for the first time all season. One bright spot was the emergence of Duane Bennett, as the freshman running back scampered for 106 yards on 20 carries for his first 100-yard performance of his young career. Senior Ernie Wheelwright and sophomore Eric Decker have been held relatively quiet in the past few weeks, but these two receivers might bust out against the Illini’s third-worst pass defense in the Big Ten.

Illinois is all about the run game, as it leads the Big Ten and is eighth in the nation in rushing at 241 yards per game. Running back Rashard Mendenhall averages 124 yards per game and 6.4 yards per carry, and needs just 218 more yards to break the Illini’s single-season rushing record. However, the pass offense leaves something to be desired, as the Illini rank last in the conference with just 147 yards per game through the air. Illinois features a two-quarterback system, led by sophomore Juice Williams and freshman Eddie McGee. Both quarterbacks are athletic and are a threat to run, and both usually see a fair amount of snaps during each game. The Illini also feature freshman standout receiver Arrelious Benn, who has 556 receiving yards on the season.

defense

The Gophers continue to be abysmal on the defensive side of the ball, as they are allowing 536.7 yards per game, which ranks dead-last (119th) nationally in Division I-A in total defense. This season has been considered by many to be one of Minnesota’s worst defensive teams in their storied history, as the Gophers have allowed 4,830 total yards this year, while they allowed a school-record 5,543 yards in 13 games last season. They likely will break that record in only 11 games this season. The Gophers also are allowing 37.1 points per game and have held only one opponent to fewer than 30 points. The secondary will continue to have three true freshman starters this week in hopes of improving for the future.

Illinois has been affective defensively this season, as they rank seventh in the Big Ten in total defense and third in rushing defense. Senior linebacker J Leman is the anchor of the defense, leading the team with 100 tackles, good for 10th in the nation. He is currently tied for the lead in the Big Ten in tackles, and has been in the conference lead in tackles per game for the last 17 weeks, dating back to the 2006 season. The Illini defense has recorded 30 sacks this season, which ranks 10th in the nation. The defense as a whole is extremely experienced, returning nine of 11 starters this year.

Special Teams

Sophomore Marcus Sherels has been emerging in the kick return game of late, replacing the injured Jay Thomas and averaging 23 yards per return. Sherels teams up with freshman Harold Howell to provide a speedy return combo for the Gophers.

Illinois’ senior placekicker Jason Reda has made 10-of-11 field goal attempts this season. He has connected on two 50-yard field goals, while also making three from 40-plus yards. Freshman Arrelious Benn gives the Illini a deadly return man, as Benn took his first career kick off return for a touchdown earlier this year.

Players to watch

Adam Weber QB No. 8 Freshman

After a fast and successful start to the season, Weber has taken a few steps back in the past two weeks with 182 passing yards against NDSU and just 99 against Michigan. Look for Weber to improve this week against the Illini secondary, which is ranked third-worst in the Big Ten.

Juice Williams QB No. 7 Sophomore

Williams features a similar skill set to Weber, as he is always a threat to run the ball. While he averages just 103 passing yards per game, look for Williams to pad his numbers against the struggling Gophers secondary on Saturday in this battle of two young and athletic quarterbacks.

Thoughts on the Game

Coach Tim Brewster’s thoughts on playing against his alma mater Illinois on Saturday: “I haven’t thought about me,” Brewster said. “We’ve had a hard season, without question. We haven’t won as many games as we thought we would win. To me, the only thing that matters is our kids feeling good.”

Coach Ron Zook’s thoughts on competing against Brewster and Minnesota on homecoming: “I’m sure that they’ve had this game circled since that staff got there with coach Brewster being an alumnus of here,” Zook said. “It’s obvious it’s homecoming, so it’s going to be all the hoopla and so forth that comes along with homecoming being a part of it. We’ve got a little momentum going here and it’s an opportunity for them to derail us.”