Golden Gophers look to get closer to bowl eligibility when they take on the reeling Illnii in Champaign
Minnesota looks to take another step closer to bowl eligibility when it travels to Champaign to face Illinois. These two Big Ten West teams are headed in opposite directions, as the Golden Gophers (4-4, 1-4 Big Ten) picked up their first conference win of the season last week over Indiana, while the Fighting Illini (3-5, 1-4) have dropped three in a row.
Minnesota has won each of the past three meetings with Illinois and looks to take advantage of a team that appears to be in free fall and doesn't seem to have any solutions.
Minnesota at Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 3 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Minnesota -9.5
1. Quarterback rotation continues for Illinois
Freshman M.J. Rivers started last week’s game at Maryland but exited with an injury. Senior A.J. Bush took over from there and finished the game. Both combined for 261 passing yards, 39 rushing and two touchdowns. Stability at the quarterback position will be key against a Minnesota defense that has recorded five sacks in the last three weeks.
2. Minnesota’s offense hopes to take advantage of Illinois' defensive woes
The last six weeks have not been kind to Lovie Smith and his defense. During this stretch Illinois has given up 263 points and surrendered 3,471 yards. Some teams don’t even give up those kind of numbers in an entire season. On the other side, Minnesota has scored 80 points and totaled 1,352 yards over its last three games. The Golden Gophers will look to continue this offensive momentum against a Illini defense that not only doesn't seem to have any answers but also must carry on without coordinator Hardy Nickerson, who resigned on Monday due to health reasons.
3. Minnesota's quarterback situation
Freshman Zack Annexstad has been banged up recently, which has given fellow classmate Tanner Morgan the opportunity to play. Morgan has risen to the occasion, completing 28 of 40 passes for 516 yards and three touchdowns in the last two games. On the season, he's completing 65 percent of his attempts and has minimized the mistakes (three interceptions). Whoever gets the starting nod for this game should have success running the offense against a defense that just gave up more than 700 yards and 63 points last week.
With the inconsistency on offense, struggles on defense, injuries, and Minnesota’s momentum, I just don’t see Illinois having enough to win this one despite the fact the Illini are .500 at home (2-2) this season. Illinois doesn't score enough points, can't stop opposing offenses, and the Golden Gophers are riding high after last week's win over Indiana. Look for Minnesota to take another step towards bowl eligibility by picking up a second straight conference win.
Prediction: Minnesota 28, Illinois 17
— 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 gophersports.com)