Gophers are off to their best start in the P.J. Fleck era
It'll be another classic Big Ten matchup when the Minnesota Golden Gophers host the Illinois Fighting Illini on Saturday afternoon. It's been another up-and-down season for the Illini (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten). They began the year with commanding victories over Akron and Connecticut, but their defense faltered in the second half against both Eastern Michigan and Nebraska. Lovie Smith's team had a bye week last week.
Minnesota (4-0, 1-0) is undefeated, and while the Gophers' offense is averaging 30 points per game, their defense is giving up almost as many points. The Gophers had to come from behind to defeat FCS opponent South Dakota State and Sun Belt member Georgia Southern, needed two overtimes to get past Fresno State on the road, and survived an attempted fourth-quarter comeback by Purdue last week.
Illinois also averages close to 30 points per game, and this game could come down to which defense holds up in the end. The Fighting Illini will be looking to end their two-game losing streak, while the Gophers look to remain undefeated. This game will kick off the Big Ten's late-afternoon slate on Saturday.
Illinois at Minnesota
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 5 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Minnesota -14
When Illinois Has the Ball
The Illinois offense, under coordinator Rod Smith, features a three-headed monster in redshirt junior quarterback Brandon Peters, senior running back Reggie Corbin and junior wide receiver Ricky Smalling. Peters -a transfer from Michigan- has brought back efficiency and consistency to the quarterback position in Champaign, qualities that had been lacking for quite some time. He's completed 60 percent of his pass attempts for 765 yards with 10 touchdowns (and only three interceptions), and he's averaging close to seven yards per completion. The 11 sacks he's taken are a little problematic, but his leadership, accuracy, and ability to help put points on the board (the Illini have scored 142 points already) are what's keeping the team competitive every week.
Corbin ranks seventh in the Big Ten in rushing yards (314) and third in yards per attempt (7.1). He's tied for ninth in touchdown runs (3) and is on the short list of Illini backs who have posted 2,000 career rushing yards. Corbin pulled out of this year's NFL Draft to return to the Illini offense, and thus far it's paid dividends. Smalling leads the team in both catches (21) and receiving yards (200), while fellow receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe (11 receptions, 193 yards, 4 TDs) and tight end Daniel Barker (7, 136, 2) have also pitched in. The Gophers defense, led by linebacker Thomas Barber (21 tackles) along with defensive linemen Sam Renner (2 sacks) and Tai'yon Devers (1.5), will look to take advantage of an Illinois offensive line that has already allowed 12 sacks.
When Minnesota Has the Ball
Gophers signal-caller Tanner Morgan leads the Big Ten in both passer rating (202.1) and yards per attempt (11.6). He's also tied for second in touchdown passes (10); he ranks fourth in passing yards (1,095) and third in completion percentage (73.4); and he has guided the offense of head coach P.J. Fleck with precision. The biggest beneficiaries have been a solid group of wide receivers in sophomore Rashod Bateman (21 receptions, 466 yards, 4 TDs), senior Tyler Johnson (25, 312, 4) and sophomore Chris Autman-Bell (9, 190, 2). Minnesota also has a stable of running backs — senior Rodney Smith, sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim, freshman Cam Wiley and sophomore Bryce Williams (combined 504 rushing yards, 5 TDs on 130 carries) — who bring a sense of balance to this spread offense. The Illini defense, headed by linebackers Dele Harding (42 tackles, INT) and Jake Hansen (33 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and defensive end Oluwole Betiku Jr. (7 sacks), will look to exploit the Minnesota O-line, which has allowed 15 sacks in 2019.
In last year's meeting, the Illini ran for 430 yards and five scores as they dominated the Gophers 55-31 at home. This year, though, Minnesota has home-field advantage (they're 7-2 in their last nine home games); Tanner Morgan has developed at the quarterback position (he only needs 306 yards to tie last year's passing yards total of 1,401); and the Illini have given up a total of 49 points and 761 yards in the second halves of their last three games combined. Illinois clearly misses defensive end Bobby Roundtree and what he brought to the table (Roundtree suffered a severe injury in a swimming accident in May). So unless Illinois can make a few stops on defense, Minnesota will avenge last year's defeat.
Prediction: Minnesota 35, Illinois 30
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of @GopherFootball)