What to watch for: Time for Gophers' pass game to kick into gear
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Who: Minnesota Gophers (2-0) vs Western Illinois Leathernecks (2-0)
When: 11 a.m. Saturday.
Where: TCF Bank Stadium (capacity: 50,805)
TV: Big Ten Network
Line: Gophers by 24.5
Coaches: Gophers -- Jerry Kill (3rd season, 11-16). Western Illinois -- Bob Nielson (1st season, 2-0).
Series: First meeting
Injuries: Gophers' full injury report can be found here.
State of affairs
Thanks in part to five defensive and special teams touchdowns, the 2-0 Gophers have tallied 95 points in mostly one-sided victories against UNLV and New Mexico State. A sturdy defense and a well-formed ground game have made up for inefficiencies in their passing attack.
Western Illinois at a glance
Saturday will be a homecoming of sorts for Bob Nielson. Before taking over at Western Illinois in December, Nielson grew Minnesota-Duluth into a two-time Division II champion. Now at his new home, Nielson is facing the formidable task of resurrecting a struggling FCS program that has won three games or less in three of its last four seasons.
So far his debut has been a smooth one as Nielson and the Leathernecks have rolled to a 2-0 start by a combined 76-15 point spread. But those two wins came against lowly MEAC squad Hampton and Division II foe Quincy. Plus, Western Illinois, an annual opponent of Kill's during his tenure at Southern Illinois, started last season 2-0 only to finish 1-8 the rest of the way.
Four keys for the Gophers
Keeping it going
As Kill admitted midweek, the Gophers were "still trying to recover" from a long road trip to New Mexico State. But they can't show any signs of a letdown Saturday.
At this juncture in Kill's rebuild, Western Illinois is of the variety the Gophers need to prove they can dominant throughout. They did so last year against FCS New Hampshire (44-7). Now they have to do it again.
Run away with it
The Gophers have made it clear their offense is going to be defined by their power run game. Surprisingly enough, Minnesota's leading rusher has been sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson (27 attempts for 205 yards). And Kill, expressing little concern about Nelson's high carries, doesn't expect to put a restraint on the sophomore's use in the run game. If the defense is going to give him the opening, Nelson needs to take it.
Tailbacks Rodrick Williams and David Cobb, with Game 1 starter Donnell Kirkwood sidelined with an ankle injury, have held up their end in the backfield with 289 combined yards. Both need to continue to set the pace.
Air it out
The Gophers have gotten away with an infrequent and ineffective pass game, but that isn't going work as the season goes on. Nelson has attempted the fewest passes in the Big Ten, completing 18-of-37 for 226 yards.
While they likely could get by with a similar showing through the air against Western Illinois, it's key Nelson and his struggling receiver corps display a notable step forward in their pass efficiency. That starts with limiting the number of dropped catches, which have been an issue.
Locking down the edges
Losing cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun for the year with ACL/MCL injury means junior Derrick Wells must quickly regain the form that made him one of the cornerstones of the "U" secondary last season.
Slowed for the last three weeks by a strained hamstring, Wells will be back in his starting role. Keeping his speed and physicality on the field, especially in nickel situations, is critical for the secondary's longevity.
After two weeks of facing spread offenses, the Gophers are facing a Leathernecks squad that relies on a solid run game to set-up play action. This will be an early season test of gap control for a developing linebacker unit and safeties Brock Vereen and Cedric Thompson.
Gophers 41, Western Illinois 10
Back home once again, the Gophers are in position to get past Western Illinois without a much trouble. Minnesota is apt to run and run early to wear down the Leathernecks.
Even after a rout at New Mexico State last week, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys got on his defense last week for being complacent in spots. Watch for the defense to turn out an impressive performance.