Gophers conclude 2011 with Illinois

Minnesota will host Illinois in search of its third win.

Minnesota wide receiver DaJon McKnight gets taken down by Wisconsin defensive back Antonio Fenelus Saturday, November 12 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Mark Vancleave

Minnesota wide receiver Da’Jon McKnight gets taken down by Wisconsin defensive back Antonio Fenelus Saturday, November 12 at TCF Bank Stadium.

by Adam Richard

The Gophers wrap up their season against Illinois on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota has had a rocky road in head coach Jerry KillâÄôs first season with a 2-9 record (1-6 conference.) 

With the rest of the school on Thanksgiving break, the football team is in search of a win to be thankful for this holiday weekend.

Minnesota played poorly through the first half of the season, but has shown life over the last half.

âÄúFrom the second half of the Nebraska [game] on, itâÄôs been a different group of kids,âÄù Kill said. âÄúWeâÄôve gotten a little bit tougher over the last four games.âÄù

MinnesotaâÄôs 24 seniors will be honored in their final game.

âÄúI donâÄôt think itâÄôs hit me yet. I donâÄôt think itâÄôs going to hit me until afterwards,âÄù senior defensive tackle Brandon Kirksey said. 

The Illini started out the year on fire with six straight wins, but that flame has subsided and Illinois has lost five straight games. Illinois head coach Ron Zook has been with the team for seven years, but rumors are swirling about his potential departure after the recent losing streak.

Illinois will be focused on its final game in honor of its seniors, too. Zook said the team was determined at practice this week.

âÄúWell, they donâÄôt have school. They donâÄôt have anything to worry about but football,âÄù Zook said in his Tuesday press conference. Illinois is already on Thanksgiving break.

The Gophers defeated Illinois last year 38-34, in the first game after Minnesota dismissed Tim Brewster. That win was fueled by three touchdowns from former running back DeLeon Eskridge. 

This year, Minnesota will try to end the year with a win behind the arm and legs of MarQueis Gray. 

Gray had a poor passing performance last week but ran for 147 yards and a touchdown.  Gray needs only 46 yards to set MinnesotaâÄôs single-season rushing record for quarterbacks.

âÄúThat defense is ranked just like Michigan State was. I believe in our offensive line,âÄù Gray said. âÄúIâÄôm just going to have to use my feet, squirm around and make plays.âÄù

Gray has battled a back injury the last three weeks, but says that he feels good going into the last game of the year. He added that he looks forward to being able to rehab his back in the offseason.

IllinoisâÄô defense is one of the best in the Big Ten this season and is led by dominant pass-rusher Whitney Mercilus, who has a nation-leading 13.5 sacks.

Mercilus is 2.5 sacks away from breaking IllinoisâÄô record for most in a season, previously held by former NFL star Simeon Rice. 

Illinois ranks ninth in the nation in yards per game allowed.

âÄú[Their] defensive ends are very, very athletic. I think they have a chance to be drafted early when they come out,âÄù Kill said. âÄúTheyâÄôve been impressive all year.âÄù

The Illini defense ranks second in the Big Ten in rushing defense. Running the ball is an area that the Gophers improved last week against Northwestern. Minnesota tallied its highest total all season with 269 yards in rushing offense last week.

On the other side of the ball, Minnesota has had difficulty stopping the opposing passing game.  The Gophers have allowed 229 yards per game through the air and 23 touchdowns to only four interceptions.

IllinoisâÄô AJ Jenkins is one of the top receivers in the nation with 1,166 yards and seven touchdowns.

âÄúHeâÄôs bigger than us and there isnâÄôt anything I can do about that,âÄù defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. âÄúI worry about him getting over the top of us. WeâÄôll spend a lot of time trying to keep him in front of us.âÄù

Illinois has played two quarterbacks recently, with freshman Reilly OâÄôToole and starter Nathan Scheelhaase getting some snaps. Zook said that he plans to use both players Saturday.

The Illini employ a three-pronged rushing attack with Scheelhaase and senior running backs Jason Ford and Troy Pollard. However, IllinoisâÄô running game is only sixth in the Big Ten with 179 yards per game. 

Although Saturday will be MinnesotaâÄôs last game, Kill said he hopes the seniors get a chance to end their careers on a high note.

âÄúIf I could have a Christmas list of giving somebody a gift, IâÄôd love to see those seniors get a win on Saturday,âÄù Kill said.