Preview: Trip to Illinois gives Gophers key chance at bowl eligibility
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Who: Minnesota Gophers (5-4, 1-4 in Big Ten) at Illinois Illini (2-7, 0-5)
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill. (capacity: 60,670)
TV: Big Ten Network
Line: Minnesota by 3
Coaches: Gophers -- Jerry Kill (2nd season, 8-13). Illinois -- Tim Beckman (1st season, 2-7).
Series: Minnesota leads 34-28-3
Last meeting: Illinois had all but quit by the time it arrived in the Twin Cities on Thanksgiving weekend 2011 for what proved to be former coach Ron Zook's final game. The Gophers put a bright ending on an otherwise dispiriting season by breezing past the Illini, 27-7, for their third victory.
At stake: For the second year in a row, the Gophers encounter Illinois with the two-win Illini caught up in another poor season. Jerry Kill's team has struggled in Big Ten play, loser of four of its last five games, but not to the same degree as Illinois. The Illini have lost six straight, having yet to notch a conference win. Saturday presents an opening for the Gophers that could make the difference between the end of a two-year postseason drought or an early start to winter break. After faltering in the second half in a 35-13 to Michigan last week, the "U" is still one win removed from bowl eligibility, with only three games left. With match-ups against Nebraska and Michigan still to come, a win at Illinois stands as the Gophers' best remaining chance to get their sixth victory.
Gophers: WR A.J. Barker is out for the second week in a row with a right ankle injury he suffered against Purdue when a defender landed awkwardly on his leg in the endzone. Barker attempted to play last week against Michigan, but did not move well in warm-ups and ended up retweaking the injury. He is at least a week away from being game-ready. WR Derrick Engel has also been ruled out, nursing a hamstring strain since the fourth quarter against Michigan. LT Ed Olson was again listed as "questionable" on the Gophers' weekly injury report, but Kill commented Wednesday that if the redshirt junior plays it would only be in a limited capacity. "(Ten to 15 plays) would be our goal, but I don't know if that will happen," Kill said. "He practiced in scrimmage situations (Tuesday) and then he struggled today, so we'll see." S Derrick Wells appears ready to reenter the starting lineup full time after a gash in his right leg has led to limiting his playing time to around 30 plays in each of the past two games. S Cedric Thompson was a late addition to the injury report. He is listed as questionable with an undisclosed injury. WR Jamel Harbison is sidelined for the season as he rehabs from a torn right ACL.
Illinois: LB Jonathan Brown, owner of a team-high 59 tackles, is out with a shoulder injury suffered last week in the Illini's loss to Ohio State. RB Josh Ferguson is likely to play after missing time with a hip pointer. Steve Hull (shoulder) is also questionable. DT Jake Howe is out for the season with a broken arm.
Three things to watch
Favored and in need of a win: The Gophers are running out of games. With five victories already in hand, falling short of bowl eligibility at this point would notably tarnish the strides Kill has made. Until this week, the Gophers had not been favored in a Big Ten game in two years. For a program that has been close but wrought by costly lapses in the majority of its losses, Saturday's game will be a significant test of where the Gophers truly stand in their attempt to dig out of Big Ten obscurity. When faced with what was loosely deemed a "must-win" game two weeks ago, the Gophers responded with a trouncing victory over Purdue. They are in a similar situation this, but this time Kill's team will have to find a way to get a much-needed win away from home. The Gophers have not won a conference road game since their last trip to Champaign in 2011, but they are in position to end their losing streak. Outside of UNLV, Illinois, who has yet to win a Big Ten game, is the most disheveled opponent the Gophers have or will face this season. A loss to Illinois would not only be damaging to the public opinion of the program's future, but could also keep them out of a bowl game.
Who will get the ball? The Gophers be will without two of their primary receivers - standout A.J Barker and Derrick Engel. The duo's absence makes it vital for the rest of the "U" receiving corps to pick up the slack. With Barker sidelined last week, the Gophers' passing game was a mess. Freshman quarterback Philip Nelson completed 13 of 29 passes for 142 yards -- the team's lowest total of the season. Nelson's accuracy and fluidity under center was fleeting, but it didn't help that his receivers were struggling to make plays in critical situations. Down two key options, Kill has made sure his receivers understood that a repeat of what happened against Michigan can't happen if they hope to leave Illinois with a win. "We made our point pretty clear (Tuesday)," Kill said. "We had a pretty intense practice and little bit of intensity after practice. They understand they need to step up, several of them." That message is targeted heavily at sophomores Devin Crawford-Tufts and Isaac Fruechte, as well as freshman Andre McDonald. The trio has combined for only 45 yards in the last three games, with Crawford-Tufts having not registered a catch in that stretch. With senior MarQueis Gray still not playing at 100 percent, it is nearly a necessity the Gophers get consistent production out of the rest of the group.
Keeping Illinois' offense off-track: The Illini offense has been dismal. Only six other NCAA-FBS level teams are averaging fewer points per game than Illinois (18.4 points). The Gophers intend to keep it that way. That starts with getting pressure on Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who has had a rough, injury-filled junior season. After failing to register a sack in their first two weeks of Big Ten play, the Gophers have totaled eight in a three-game span. Last week against Michigan, they hounded Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardener early on, forcing him to constantly scramble around. However, Gardner and the Wolverines eventually settled in as the Gophers surrendered more than 200-yards passing for the first time during the conference season (234). Their defense continues to be strong in bursts, but has experienced periodic letdowns that have proven to be crippling, in part because offensive deficiencies. The Gophers have to find a way to establish the consistency they maintained against Purdue two weeks ago if they want to give their sputtering offense a chance to stay in-step.
The call: Gophers
Other than being on the road, the opportunity at win No. 6 couldn't be much better for the Gophers. Illinois is in shambles, while the Gophers, despite their problems in the Big Ten, have had periods of measured improvement. Now it's a matter of taking that next step and securing a game that on paper they should be the victors in. However, Kill's squad has yet to prove it can win a crucial conference game away from home. Unless the Illini have already geared down, like they had when they last faced the Gophers, they likely view Saturday as a prime opportunity to salvage what's left of their season. The "U" has to get its offense in a flow early on to prevent the momentary defensive lapses that have hurt them in all four losses.