Minnesota travels to Illinois with old trips still in mind

The Gophers were upset in Champaign in 2014.

Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner winds up a throw on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016 during a game against Rutgers at TCF Bank Stadium.

Carter Jones, Daily File Photo

Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner winds up a throw on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016 during a game against Rutgers at TCF Bank Stadium.

Mike Hendrickson

It’s been two years, but Minnesota’s loss at Illinois still stings.

The Gophers were on a four-game winning streak, but lost a 10-point, second-half lead to give the Fighting Illini their first conference win of the season.

Quarterback Mitch Leidner said that game was brought up in their team meeting on Sunday — six days ahead of their first visit to Champaign since the 2014 matchup.

“[Head coach Tracy Claeys] reminded us … of the performance we had there a couple years ago,” said Leidner, the starting quarterback for the 2014 game. “Guys are hungry and excited to go down there and redeem ourselves.”

Leidner pointed to the bye week following the matchup and said players were looking forward to that and not focusing on the game itself.

Defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel said it could be attributed to another reason: overconfidence.

“There’s not a team out there that’s so appreciably better then somebody else that you just say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re better then them,’” Sawvel said. “That’s what happened in [2014]. We went down there and thought we were better then we were and we got beat.”

All these reasons are being used as motivation to not repeat the past, Claeys said.

There are many similarities between where the Gophers were in 2014 when they faced Illinois in Champaign, and where they are now.

Minnesota was 6-1, compared to 5-2 now, and was coming off a close home win against an inferior opponent.

On Saturday, the Gophers defeated Rutgers — a team that had been outscored 174-14 in the Big Ten this season — 34-32 on a last second, game-winning kick.

The close game with Rutgers emphasized same lessons learned in the 2014 game against Illinois.

“There wasn’t anybody happy. There’s nobody happy with the way we played, so we know that,” Sawvel said. “We got to play better overall than what we’ve played. We got to cut out a couple mistakes that we weren’t making the previous couple games.”

Sawvel said some players will be moved down the depth chart because of poor performances against Rutgers.

But just as Minnesota will look at the game against Rutgers and the 2014 game in Champaign, the group also looks back at their 2012 game at Illinois.

The Gophers defeated Illinois 17-3 to make themselves bowl-eligible for the first time in three seasons.

Sawvel said because the Gophers were fighting for bowl elgibility, the urgency to get a win was greater than it was in 2014.

Defensive lineman Hank Ekpe said the coaches this week — Claeys, Sawvel and defensive line coach Jeff Phelps — have harped on being prepared for your opponent, no matter the skill level.

After a close call with Rutgers, and an upset loss at Illinois in 2014, it’s easy to imagine why that would be one of the main messages.

“You can’t always go in with the mindset thinking that an opponent is just going to roll over because you are doing well and your opponent is going to do this or that,” Ekpe said. “You always have to get the preparation throughout the week because if you don’t, you will see all around college football about how that can turn out.”


The restraining orders on the five Gophers football players were not removed Tuesday. This doesn’t affect the players’ status for Saturday’s game as it is in Illinois and not at TCF Bank Stadium. KiAnte Hardin, one of the five players with a restraining order, is listed as a starter for the Illinois game.

-Defensive tackle Steven Richardson is going through concussion protocol, Claeys said. It is not known how long he may be out but he is listed as out for the game against Illinois.

-Tight end Brandon Lingen is listed as out for the Illinois game. The junior captain was a force on offense last year, but has only seen limited time in three games this season due to injury. Claeys would not rule him out for the year.

-Running back Rodney Smith won the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week award after he had 257 all-purpose yards against Rutgers, including one return touchdown and one rushing touchdown. He was the first Minnesota player to win the award since David Cobb in 2014.