By Mike Hendrickson
The Gophers (4-6, 1-5 Big Ten) will face an unranked opponent in Illinois on Saturday after taking on three ranked teams in a row. A full breakdown and score prediction can be seen below:
When Minnesota runs the ball:
Redshirt freshman running back Rodney Smith is likely to play for the Gophers on Saturday after being a late scratch against Iowa last week. Minnesota’s running offense has been up and down lately, and Illinois is not the easiest opponent. They have allowed an average of 154.4 rushing yards a game, 51st in the Football Bowl Subdivision. If Smith stays healthy Saturday, and freshman Shannon Brooks has another good game, Minnesota will have a chance to get its running game back on track.
Matchup to watch: RB Shannon Brooks vs. LB Dawuane Smoot
When Illinois runs the ball:
Illinois struggles in the ground game, as the Illini are second to last in the Big Ten and 113th in the FBS in rushing offense. The team’s leading rusher, freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn, is also doubtful for Saturday’s game. The Gophers have some injuries on the defensive line, but have a chance to smother the Illini’s rushing attack.
Matchup to watch: RB Josh Ferguson vs. DE Hendrick Ekpe
When Minnesota passes the ball:
Illinois has a good passing defense. They are 34th in the FBS in yards allowed a game, and have 12 interceptions in 10 games. Redshirt quarterback Mitch Leidner has rattled off possibly the best four games of his career in his last four games however, and did it against some better passing defenses. The Illini’s passing defense should limit Leidner a little, but it should be another good game for the quarterback and his receivers.
Matchup to watch: WR KJ Maye vs. S Taylor Barton
When Illinois passes the ball:
Junior quarterback Wes Lunt had a nice start to the season, but has only thrown four touchdowns in his last five games. He doesn’t turn the ball over much with only four interceptions this season, but he isn’t a good enough quarterback to do significant damage against Minnesota’s secondary. The Gophers are 16th in the FBS in passing yards allowed.
Matchup to watch: WR Geronimo Allison vs. CB Eric Murray
Other key factors:
Illinois’ offense is not where it was when it began the season. The Illini are averaging 16.8 points in their last five games – nine points a game if you take out their 48-point performance against Purdue – after putting up an average of 30.2 per game in their first five. Minnesota has faced some tough offensive teams lately; the Illini should be a break from that.
Minnesota 24, Illinois 13
Minnesota’s offense is clicking lately, and while Illinois has a tough defense, Leidner and company should have no problem putting up enough points to win this game.
Prediction record so far this season: 9-1