Minnesota looking for much-needed momentum against N. Illinois

Gophers junior wide receiver Troy Stoudermier is tackled by USC Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

Image by Mark Vancleave

Gophers junior wide receiver Troy Stoudermier is tackled by USC Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

by John Hageman

With just twelve weeks in a season of college football, just one game can have the potential to make or break the season and send a team in one trajectory or another. But usually that pivotal game doesnâÄôt arrive as early as the fourth week. The Minnesota football team (1-2) has just one non-conference foe left in Northern Illinois (1-2) this Saturday, and the Gophers are in need of a spark plug to get them rolling into their tough Big Ten season âÄî when wins become more of a commodity than they already are. âÄúThereâÄôs a huge difference between 1-3 and 2-2,âÄù senior Kyle Theret said. âÄúEspecially going against [USC] last week, when you play well for three quarters then you fall off, you immediately want to get back at again and I think in everybodyâÄôs mindset this is a must win, because going 1-3 is unacceptable.âÄù If the GophersâÄô 32-21 loss to the then-No. 18 Trojans last week was any kind of barometer for this week, Saturday should be a winnable game âÄî especially considering that Northern IllinoisâÄô only win this year came against North Dakota, an FCS team. With the return of Theret, the secondary improved significantly from its performance against South Dakota a week before, holding USC quarterback Matt Barkley to under 200 yards passing and forcing his first two interceptions of the season. But the defense may face difficulties from elsewhere against Northern Illinois, particularly on the ground. The Huskies rank 21st in the nation in rushing yards per game (227.7), but their leading rusher comes from an unusual source in quarterback Chandler Harnish, who is averaging almost 100 yards per game on the ground this season. The Gophers had troubles containing South Dakota quarterback Dante Warren on designed runs and when the pocket broke down two weeks ago, and he went on to rush for 81 yards and two scores on ten carries. Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster said the team will use the lessons learned from playing against a mobile quarterback like Warren because âÄúthose who refuse to study history are doomed to repeat it,âÄù while the players are confident that if they stick to their assignments and fill their gaps, theyâÄôll be more effective this time around. âÄúItâÄôs nothing that weâÄôre not ready for,âÄù defensive tackle Brandon Kirksey said. While Northern Illinois will look to establish the run, the Gophers will rehash their mantra and attempt to do the same, something that they werenâÄôt able to do against the Trojans. Junior running back Duane Bennett, who led the Gophers in each of the first two games in rushing including a career-high 187 yards in the opener, was limited in the loss to USC, gaining just six yards on seven carries. Brewster said earlier this week that Bennett wasnâÄôt 100 percent for the game against USC because of a sprained ankle from the week before, but Bennett said after practice Tuesday that thereâÄôs âÄúno doubt in my mind, no doubt in the coachesâÄô mindâÄù that he will play Saturday. But even with Bennett in the backfield, the Gophers will need to do much better than the 2.2 yards per carry they averaged against the Trojans, something thatâÄôs within reach against the same HuskiesâÄô defense that gave up 319 yards on the ground to Illinois last week. If the Gophers are to get their season back on track before conference play, establishing the run will be their highest priority. The Gophers will be without one of their deep-pass threats and starting kick returner in junior Troy Stoudermire, who was suspended indefinitely for “conduct detrimental to the team” and won’t play Saturday. Brewster didn’t elaborate on what triggered the suspension. Sophomore Bryant Allen, who suffered a broken right ankle during spring practice, will take over the kick return duties. “I’ve got great confidence in Bryant,” Brewster said. “He’s back to being 100 percent, and he looks really good.” Although SaturdayâÄôs game is relatively early on the schedule, the Gophers are aware of its importance, not only to salvage a .500 record going into their Big Ten schedule, but also just to gain some traction for the long haul. âÄúThis is a big game for us. To say anything else would be lying to you,âÄù senior quarterback Adam Weber said. âÄúWe still are very, very confident and positive about what we can do this season, and this week is going to be very critical for where we want to go.âÄù