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Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers Preview and Prediction

Rodney Smith

Rodney Smith

On Saturday, Illinois and Minnesota will get together at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis with the goal of finally breaking through in the conference win column. Both the Fighting Illini and Golden Gophers enter this game 0-3 in Big Ten play, looking for some positive momentum as the second half of the 2017 season commences.

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Illinois is 2-4 overall and has lost its last four games. Head coach Lovie Smith saw his team get off to a quick start but the good fortunes did not last, as the Illini’s last win came against Western Kentucky back on Sept. 10. Illinois is having trouble scoring, sitting last in the Big Ten at 18 points per game.

Minnesota also started fast, winning its first three games and showing plenty of energy and excitement under first-year head coach P.J. Fleck. But a 31-24 loss at home to Maryland has sent the Golden Gophers in the opposite direction. Last week’s 30-27 home loss to Michigan State was Minnesota’s third in a row as a season that began with promise has given way to the Gophers working with little margin for error in their quest for bowl eligibility.

Illinois at Minnesota

Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 21 at 3:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: Big Ten Network

Spread: Minnesota -14

Three Things to Watch

1. Illinois' passing game vs. Minnesota's pass defense

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As stated earlier, Illinois’ offense is having all sorts of issues. Quarterback Jeff George Jr. is only completing a little more than half of his passes and has twice as many interceptions (seven) as touchdowns (three). Minnesota has done a decent job against the pass, allowing 187 yards per game through the air. The track records here suggest that the Golden Gophers should have the advantage when the Illini try and move the ball through the air, especially if Minnesota can get some pressure on George and force him into a turnover or two.

2. Minnesota's running game vs. Illinois' run defense

Overshadowed by other Big Ten running backs, Minnesota's Rodney Smith is seventh in the conference with 442 rushing yards. He’s tied for second with 119 carries, but he had just 11 last week against Michigan State. Expect that to change Saturday as Illinois ranks last in the Big Ten in rushing defense at nearly 200 yards per game allowed. Smith and backfield mate Shannon Brooks (329 yards, 5 TDs) should expect plenty of touches against the Illini.

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3. Minnesota's pass protection vs. Illinois' pass rush

While Minnesota may try to control the clock with its ground game, at some point, the Golden Gophers will take to the air. Quarterbacks Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft have been somewhat inconsistent in the pocket (combined 54.6 percent completion rate with 8 TDs, 5 INTs), but a key for this game will be pass protection. Minnesota leads the way in the conference with just four sacks allowed in six games. On the other side, Illinois has averaged two sacks per contest. If the Illini can maintain that production against the Golden Gophers, it may be just enough to slow down Minnesota’s offense. But if Illinois can generate any pressure, it will make the defense’s job that much harder, especially if the Gophers are able to run the ball effectively.

Final Analysis

Both teams enter this game ice cold, but the good news is this matchup presents an opportunity to put an end to a long losing streak and pick up that coveted first Big Ten win in the process. The reality is this is a must-win as it relates to either team’s hopes of qualifying for a bowl game.

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Minnesota lost a close game at home to Michigan State last week and is starting at back-to-back road dates after this one. Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck would love to use this game as a springboard to carry his team through the second half of its schedule and should be able to do so against an Illinois team that’s really hit the skids.

Prediction: Minnesota 28, Illinois 17

— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He also is writing and podcasting for www.theozone.net. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.