Head coach Jerry Kill didn’t say it, but Saturday’s game against Illinois is about as close to a must-win as it gets.
Minnesota needs one win to reach its preseason goal of bowl eligibility for the first time since 2009.
It has three games left to get there, and Illinois is easily the most winnable game left on the schedule for the Gophers.
“It’s a critical game for us — there’s no question about that,” Kill said.
It becomes even more critical as Minnesota closes its season against Nebraska and Michigan State, two teams that will likely be favored against the Gophers.
Still, senior linebacker Mike Rallis said he is trying to get the idea of a bowl game out of his head.
“We’re not too focused on that because looking ahead at a bowl game isn’t going to help us beat Illinois this week,” he said.
Rallis said he was frustrated after the loss to Michigan last week. The Gophers were competitive for much of the game, but in the end they made too many mistakes and were blown out 35-13.
But the Gophers have a realistic shot to beat the Illini this weekend.
“We feel like we can win every single game, and that’s how we treat every game,” true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson said.
Illinois has lost 11-straight Big Ten games dating back to last season, including a 27-7 loss to Minnesota, and it has been dreadful this season.
The Illini are 0-5 in the Big Ten and haven’t been competitive in a conference game yet, allowing at least 31 points in each of them. They are fresh off a 52-22 loss to Ohio State.
Illinois surrenders the most points per game in the Big Ten and scores the fewest points per game. Its run offense is the worst in the Big Ten this year.
But Minnesota hasn’t won a Big Ten road game in the Jerry Kill era, which makes an easy win seem unlikely.
The Gophers will also likely play without their top receiver A.J. Barker for the second consecutive week as he recovers from an ankle injury. Minnesota’s offense lacked firepower without him against Michigan.
Kill also spent a lot of time this week praising Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, despite his mediocre performance this season.
Scheelhaase is a mobile quarterback who can extend plays with his legs, but he’s been far from impressive, averaging 134 passing yards per game.
“We’ve got to … keep the quarterback inside the pocket and not let him get outside and run around,” Kill said. “He’s that type of youngster that can do that, and he runs the ball very well.”
Rallis tried his best to avoid the question of whether the game against Illinois was a must-win. He did, however, make his goals clear.
“I’m not even going to think about that — not making a bowl game is not really an option for me,” Rallis said.
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