No choice but optimism in final road trip

Running back DeLeon Eskridge breaks a tackle to complete a Gophers touchdown Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium.  Running for a total of 61 yards, Eskridge provided three of five Minnesota touchdowns.

Running back DeLeon Eskridge breaks a tackle to complete a Gophers touchdown Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium. Running for a total of 61 yards, Eskridge provided three of five Minnesota touchdowns.

John Hageman

It wasnâÄôt a situation that Brandon Kirksey wanted to be in.

The junior defensive tackle was watching his team fall 31-8 to Michigan State from home while serving a suspension, unable to do anything to help his team avoid a nine-game losing streak.

But the captain did see some improvement from the defense from previous weeks.

The Gophers nearly completed two goal-line stands in the first half and gave the offense a couple of chances to get back in the game.

âÄúIt wasnâÄôt the best seat in the house, watching from where I was watching,âÄù Kirksey said. âÄúBut I saw some good things from some of the younger guys that had to step up and play.âÄù

Even though the defense was playing with more grit than it had in previous weeks, it still gave up 21 first-half points, including a fourth-down touchdown run by Edwin Baker as time expired in first half.

But the Gophers stood relatively tall in the second half, allowing just 10 points, giving Minnesota interim head coach Jeff Horton some hope that even in tough times his team will continue fighting.

âÄúThat thing could have snowballed in the second half,âÄù Horton said. âÄúI thought we came out, competed over those last 30 minutes.âÄù

ItâÄôs with that unrelenting optimism that the Gophers now turn to Illinois. Much like Minnesota, the Illini had questions about head coach Ron Zook heading into the season.

Illinois was coming off of a 3-9 season just two years removed from a Rose Bowl appearance, and questions lingered about ZookâÄôs job. A 5-4 record this season seems to have, at least for now, cooled his hot seat.

That turnaround is partly thanks to first-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase, who has thrown for 13 touchdowns this season while completing more than 60 percent of his passes. And heâÄôs just as dangerous with his legs.

Last week against Michigan, Scheelhaase threw for 211 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another 101 yards and a score in a 67-65 triple-overtime loss.

But the astronomical number of points the Illini accumulated doesnâÄôt necessarily intimidate the Minnesota defense.

âÄúThe first thing you think is, âÄòWow, theyâÄôre explosive,âÄôâÄù senior Ryan Collado said. âÄúWe know that theyâÄôre explosive, but we feel like we can limit the amount of points this Saturday.âÄù

For the Gophers to recreate their last win against the Illini, they will need to do better than the 37 points per game they have been giving up over the past month.

That win came on the last road trip to Champaign when they stunned the Illini 27-20 in 2008, lifting Minnesota to a national ranking for the first time in the Tim Brewster era.

âÄúI think that was one of my greatest moments in Minnesota,âÄù Kirksey said. âÄúNobody thought we could beat them âĦ of course we wonâÄôt be ranked win or lose [this Saturday], but IâÄôm hoping to get that feeling again.âÄù

McGee: Bizarro MarQueis?

The storyline of last weekâÄôs game for many was MarQueis GrayâÄôs brief transition from wide receiver to quarterback against the Spartans last week.

A similar change âÄî albeit in the reverse âÄî has already taken place at Illinois.

Senior Eddie McGee played his freshman year as the backup quarterback to Juice Williams, and has seen action at both positions since, catching eight passes for 62 yards this season while tallying the second-most pass attempts behind Scheelhaase.

But while McGee told Zook coming into this year that he wanted to focus on being a wide receiver this season, Gray reiterated his desire to remain a quarterback when a new head coach comes in next season.

A more defined role may make it easier on Gray, who said switching roles in the middle of the game forces him to switch mindsets quickly.

âÄúWhen you switch from receiver to quarterback, you have to calm down your mentality,âÄù Gray said. âÄúAs a receiver, you just go out there to have fun and talk smack to the defense.âÄù