Two frustrating defeats leave Illinois sick for the cure

John R. Carter

Minnesota senior safety Jack Brewer witnessed both sides of Illinois’ football team first-hand the past two seasons – and he liked what he saw each time.

Two years ago Brewer played as a sophomore defensive back in the Gophers 37-7 win at Illinois, contributing one tackle and one pass break-up.

Last season Brewer was on offense for Minnesota’s 44-10 rout at the Metrodome. Brewer started at wide receiver and had one reception.

On Saturday, Brewer will be back on defense when the Gophers (1-2, 0-1 Big Ten) travel to Champaign-Urbana for their Big Ten road-opener against the Illini (3-1, 0-1).

And while Brewer’s position has been changed almost as frequently as motor oil the past several years, the way Minnesota has played against Illinois has not.

While it might seem the Gophers have a perfect system setup to pound Illinois year in and year out, Brewer doesn’t think that’s the case. In fact, he doesn’t know why Minnesota has dominated back-to-back seasons.

“We just happened to put together good games,” Brewer said. “I’m not one to say that we have these guys’ numbers, because I know of you come out flat anybody can beat you, especially in the Big Ten. I think it’s just coincidence.”

Illini quarterback Kurt Kittner is just as baffled.

“Minnesota has just really gotten after us the past two years,” Kittner said. “For one reason or another, I can’t really point it out, but we haven’t played well the last two times we’ve met them.”

The Gophers have outscored Illinois 81-17 in the past two meetings, shining on both sides of the ball.

On offense, Minnesota’s running game has wracked up massive amounts of yardage. In 1999 the Gophers ran for 367 yards, adding 364 yards in 2000.

On defense, Minnesota has shut down Kittner and his usually impressive arm. The Heisman Trophy candidate is a combined 22 of 79 for just 283 yards the past two meetings.

“There is no question we’ve struggled against them the last couple of years,” Illini coach Ron Turner said. “They’ve had a good scheme and they’ve matched up well.”

While the Gophers hope to dominate all over again this time around, don’t expect the same results – a number of things have changed since last season’s win.

Minnesota’s running attack is again strong, averaging 216 yards per game, second in the Big Ten.

But the Gophers offensive line, which opened holes wider than Steven Tyler’s mouth in the previous two meetings with Illinois is far less experienced. The line has three new starters this season.

But it’s the Gophers defense that’s changed the most.

Minnesota’s veteran defense that struggled against spread and option offenses, yet contained the traditional drop-back style of Kitter and Illinois, is gone.

In their place is a younger, smaller and quicker group of defenders. But whether they’re good enough to keep the patient Kittner – the Big Ten’s leader with 270 passing yards per game – under wraps is undetermined.

“We’re a totally different defense than the last two years,” Brewer said. “It’s like night and day.”

Despite the nine new starters, Turner excepts the same tenacious Gophers defense this year.

“I still see a good defensive team over there,” Turner said. “I know they have a lot of new faces and new coaches, but I don’t see a whole lot of difference.”

If Minnesota can keep Kittner off his game for the third-straight season, the Gophers should be in good shape defensively because Illinois’ running game has been, well, dreadful this year.

The Illini are averaging just 2.9 yards per carry in four games this season – second to last in the conference.

Brewer knows the Gophers are a different team this season and he’s drawing no conclusions from Minnesota’s success over the past two years. Kittner, on the other hand, is definitely using last season as a motivating tool.

“Last year we basically got embarrassed by them,” Kittner said. “It was one thing to lose a game, but it’s different to go out and just get killed by them. We’ve definitely got a revenge factor from that standpoint.”


John R. Carter covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]