Gophers hope to store away another win

David La

Game six is generally a must-win game in any seven-game series. For the Minnesota football team, game six on their schedule has taken on the same meaning.
The Gophers (4-1 overall, 1-1 in the Big Ten) head to Champaign, Ill., to take on Illinois (3-2, 0-2) on Saturday. The Fighting Illini’s last game was a 34-31 overtime loss at Indiana, much like the Gophers, who were beaten in overtime by No. 17 Wisconsin 20-17.
A look at the Minnesota schedule shows the team has done as expected so far. The Gophers slapped-up their non conference opponents and entered the Big Ten season undefeated and confident.
No. 17 Wisconsin came to town last weekend a favorite, and left feeling fortunate just to have pulled out a win. The losing Gophers refused to hang their heads this week though; they’re confident they left everything on the field that day.
“It was a great game but we lost,” coach Glen Mason said. “But for the things I emphasize that I want to get done in this program as far as great effort from the players and a good job of coaching, I was pleased from that perspective.”
Now 4-1 and needing at least two more wins to secure a bowl-game appearance, the Gophers must take the perspective of a squirrel. They have to collect one last win like the former collects one last nut, before harsh winds blow Ohio State and Purdue into town.
But the Illini are not of the mind to be rolled over. Like Minnesota, Illinois went through the nonconference schedule without a loss. Had it not been for drawing a surging Michigan State team and an unpredictable Indiana squad, the Illini could be .500.
Furthermore, the last six trips to Memorial Stadium have netted the Gophers no wins, dating back to 1980. The last game between the teams in 1996 saw Illini running back Robert Holcombe rush for a school-record 315 yards at the Metrodome. To put that performance in perspective, in five games this season Illinois running back Steve Havard has 391 yards rushing.
But the yards this year are coming from quarterback Kurt Kittner. The sophomore has thrown for an average of 239.0 yards per game — behind only Drew Brees of Purdue — and 11 touchdowns.
“Talk about shifting gears,” Mason said. “You go from last week, an old-fashioned, buckle-it-up (game). This week is just the opposite, the offense is more geared to throwing the ball.”
The adjustments won’t have to be wholesale. The pass-happy Illini plays right into Minnesota’s strengths — and weaknesses.
The Gophers pass rush has racked up 24 sacks, tops in the Big Ten. Defensive end Karon Riley is tied for the conference lead with 7.5. However, the secondary is suspect. Cornerback Willie Middlebrooks was flagged three times for pass interference last weekend against the Badgers, and receiver Nick Davis broke an 81-yard touchdown reception due to a coverage lapse.
Offensively, the Gophers feature running back is Thomas Hamner, who leads the Big Ten in all-purpose YPG with 150.2. Hamner’s two-straight games with 100 yards rushing, coupled with touchdown catches that have spanned 64 and 49 yards, make him a dual threat at his position.
Since the two teams have not met in three years, Illini coach Ron Turner has only film to show him what Minnesota is all about.
So far he is impressed.
“I think Minnesota is an outstanding football team,” Turner said. “They had a lot of chances to win that (Wisconsin) game, and they’re probably pretty disappointed that they didn’t, because they did have a lot of chances.”
Minnesota narrowly lost an opportunity to beat the Badgers, but a victory against Illinois will put them one important win closer to ensuring they don’t narrowly miss the postseason.

David La Vaque covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]