Daily Breakdown: Minnesota to gain third consecutive Big Ten win against Illinois

Running back Rodney Smith runs the ball up the field on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016 at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers played against Rutgers University Scarlet Knights at the Gopher's Homecoming game.

Chris Dang

Running back Rodney Smith runs the ball up the field on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016 at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers played against Rutgers University Scarlet Knights at the Gopher’s Homecoming game.

Mike Hendrickson

The Gophers (5-2, 2-2) travel to Champaign, Ill. in search of their third straight Big Ten win at Illinois (2-5, 1-3). A full breakdown, prediction, and other notes can be found below.

When Minnesota runs the ball:

Gophers’ running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks have both excelled this season and Minnesota’s ground game has flourished.

The group has rushed for over 200 yards in five of their seven games and has at least one touchdown in each of them. Smith is still third in the Big Ten for rushing yards a game, as he had another strong week against Rutgers, earning him Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors.

Illinois has a very strong defensive line – totaling 8.3 tackles for loss per game, 8th in the FBS – but opponents have still had an easy time running against them. The Fighting Illini’s rushing defense is 11th in the Big Ten and has allowed over 195 yards every game except their first game of the season. Gophers clearly ahead here and could win the game based on how well their two running backs do.

Matchup to watch: RB Rodney Smith vs. DL Carroll Phillips

Advantage: Minnesota

When Illinois runs the ball:

While Minnesota has two running backs that have seen significant playing time this season, Illinois has three running backs that have performed well.

Running backs Kendrick Foster, Reggie Corbin, and Ke’Shawn Vaughn all have 39 or more carries this season, combining for 145.9 yards a game on the ground. Illinois’ rushing offense had back-to-back 225-yard performances against Rutgers and Purdue.

The Gophers rushing defense has been a bit up and down this year, but have still haven’t let any opponents break out against them. Illinois has a strong rushing attack, but won’t win the game for itself here.

Matchup to watch: RB Kendrick Foster vs. LB Jonathan Celestin

Advantage: Minnesota

When Minnesota passes the ball:

Quarterback Mitch Leidner returned to action last week for the Gophers and didn’t do great. He completed 61.1 percent of his passes but didn’t throw a touchdown and had one interception.

The redshirt senior has only thrown one touchdown in his past four games, and has five interceptions in the same span. As long as Minnesota is winning, this won’t be a problem for the Gophers but Leidner hasn’t had a strong game through the air since his four-touchdown performance against Indiana State.

Illinois’ passing defense isn’t elite – 51st in yards allowed per game in the FBS – but they are good enough to make sure Leidner doesn’t have one of his better games of the year. If the Fighting Illini can completely stop the Gophers’ passing attack – which they are capable of – it could be a very long day for Minnesota.

Matchup to watch: WR Drew Wolitarsky vs. CB Darius Mosely

Advantage: Illinois

When Illinois passes the ball:

For the third-straight week, Minnesota will be facing an inexperienced quarterback. Jeff George Jr. will likely be making his second career start against the Gophers Saturday, so it’s hard to know what to expect from him.

His only career pass attempts came against Michigan this year, and he completed 26.7 percent of them for only 95 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Illinois’ first and second-string quarterbacks have dealt with injuries this year, and it’s unlikely Illinois’ offense will find any success here on Saturday.

It’s hard to evaluate Minnesota’s passing defense as the group has had good games and really bad games. They had strong performances against Iowa and Maryland but put up weak performances against Rutgers and Penn State. Minnesota will get back two of their cornerbacks – KiAnte Hardin and Ray Buford – this game, which will likely lead to a stronger game overall for Minnesota’s passing defense.

Matchup to watch: WR Malik Turner vs. CB KiAnte Hardin

Advantage: Minnesota

Prediction:

Minnesota 23, Illinois 21.

Minnesota’s running backs will be the saviors again as the Gophers spoil Illinois’ Homecoming game with a close win.

Prediction record: 5-2