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Illinois vs. Minnesota Football Prediction and Preview

Tanner Morgan, Minnesota Golden Gophers Football

Tanner Morgan and the Golden Gophers look to maintain possession of first place in the Big Ten West when they host the Fighting Illini

Start your college football Saturday with a Big Ten West matchup as the Minnesota Golden Gophers host the Illinois Fighting Illini in Minneapolis. 

Minnesota (6-2, 4-1 Big Ten) has won each of its last four games, including last week's demolition of Northwestern, and is in the driver's seat in the West Division. The Golden Gophers are a game ahead of both Wisconsin and Purdue, and they own a victory over the Boilermakers. Minnesota also is No. 20 in the initial College Football Playoff Rankings, which came out on Tuesday night.

As for Illinois (3-6, 2-4), the Illini are fighting to keep their season alive after getting upset at home by Rutgers last week. Minnesota looks to get one step closer to Indianapolis, while Illinois hopes to salvage its season.

Illinois at No. 20 Minnesota

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 6 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN 2
Spread: Minnesota -14.5

When Illinois Has the Ball

The one thing that the Illini have done well this year is run the ball. Running back Chase Brown has been the workhorse out of the Illinois backfield and is sixth in the Big Ten in rushing yards (704), ninth in rushing attempts (111), and fifth in yards per attempt (6.3). He also has four touchdown runs. Josh McCray (482 rushing yards) and Reggie Love III (150) have also pitched in. Their collective efforts have made the Illini the conference's seventh-ranked rushing offense.

The passing game has been an Achilles heel for the Illini, especially with all of the injuries and the back-and-forth with the quarterback position. But Brandon Peters put together his best passing game of the season in last week's loss to Rutgers as he completed 14 of 19 passes (73.7 completion percentage) for a season-high 190 yards and two touchdowns. Notably, he also wasn't sacked and didn't throw an interception. Peters had more season highs with a 192.4 passer efficiency rating, 82.0 QBR, and 25 rushing yards.

But overall, Peters has struggled more often than not this season. At the end of the day, the Illini are averaging just 324.6 total offensive yards per game and 144.9 passing yards each week (both second-worst in the Big Ten) to go with 17.1 points per game (last in the league).

Illinois has been most successful when it runs well but may have trouble against this stout Minnesota front. The Gophers rank 11th in the country in total defense (303.1 ypg), eighth in rushing defense (92.9 ypg), and tied for 14th in the nation in scoring defense (18.9 ppg).

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When Minnesota Has the Ball

The Golden Gophers have the Big Ten's second-most productive rushing attack (222.1 ypg, 15th in FBS) and it has been a true team effort. Mohamed Ibrahim opened the campaign by running for 163 yards against Ohio State but he also suffered a season-ending lower-leg injury in that game. Trey Potts then took over was productive (552 yds., 6 TDs) before he suffered an undisclosed injury on Oct. 3 against Purdue that was serious enough to require him to be hospitalized for six days. He is expected to recover but won't play again this season.

Then it was Bryce Williams who stepped up with more carries, including going for 127 yards in the win over Nebraska, but was lost for the season due to a foot injury, he injured his ankle early in last week's rout of Northwestern and was carted off. He underwent season-ending ankle surgery earlier this week.

That leaves a pair of freshmen — Mar'Keise Irving and Ky Thomas — to handle the carries. Both are averaging better than five yards per carry and are a testament to the productive depth that head coach P.J. Fleck and his staff have built on this roster. The ground game has made life easier for quarterback Tanner Morgan, who's only been sacked nine times.

And while Morgan hasn't needed to throw the ball a ton because of the running game, he still ranks in the Big Ten's top 10 in passing yards (1,177, 10th), touchdown passes (6, tied for eighth), yards per attempt (8.2, fifth), completion rate (60.8 percent, 10th), and passer efficiency rating (136.8, ninth). Minnesota ranks eighth in the Big Ten in total offense (370.0 ypg) and sixth in scoring offense (28.4 ppg).

Illinois has the conference's fourth-worst total defense (402.1 ypg),  passing defense (241.8 ypg), and scoring defense (23.3 ppg). They're also the league's third-worst rushing defense (160.3 ypg), and they've dealt with injuries during the course of the season.

Final Analysis

The Gophers lead this all-time series 40-30-3 and have won five of their last seven games against the Illini. They've outscored Illinois by a margin of 232-171 during that stretch, and the winning team has gone over the 30-point mark in five of those seven games. Minnesota is also 10-5 in its last 15 home games, while Illinois has only won three of its last eight road games. Both teams will run the ball early and often, but with Minnesota having both a better defense and a stronger passing attack, the Gophers pick up another win at home.

Prediction: Minnesota 31, Illinois 14

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— Written by Gabe Salgado, who 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 can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.