Golden Gophers, Fighting Illini look to finally get into the win column when they meet in Champaign on Saturday
The third weekend of 2020 Big Ten college football season has arrived, and on this week's schedule is a battle between two teams looking for that elusive first win of the year. The Illinois Fighting Illini (0-2), and the Minnesota Golden Gophers (0-2) have dealt with some tough losses this season.
Illinois started this campaign by getting hammered at Wisconsin two weeks ago, then came up short in their comeback attempt against Purdue in last week's home opener. The Illini were also shorthanded last week due to both injuries and COVID-19.
Minnesota began the year with a humiliating defeat at the hands of Michigan in their home opener. The Gophers followed that up by blowing a 17-point fourth-quarter lead at Maryland last Friday night and falling in overtime. The Gophers have been able to put points on the board (68); they just haven't turned that offense into wins yet. Their defense, however, seems to be the issue (1,156 yards allowed, two sacks, an interception, five pass deflections).
These two teams have played some intense games in recent seasons. And they'll have to go through one another again just to earn their first win in the standings.
Minnesota at Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 7 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Minnesota -7
When Minnesota Has the Ball
Despite being 0-2, the Gophers are still potent on offense. Tanner Morgan is completing 60.9 percent of his passes for 386 yards, two touchdowns, and just one interception. His 8.4 yards per average total is fourth in the conference, and his 141.35 passer rating is sixth. Wide receivers Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell account for 320 of Morgan's passing yards, while Mohamed Ibrahim is the Gophers workhorse out of the backfield (67 carries, 347 rushing yards, 6 touchdowns). P.J. Fleck's team runs one of the more balanced spread offenses in college football, and they shouldn't be underestimated because of their record.
They'll be taking on an Illini defense that's already given up 886 total yards while only producing six sacks and three takeaways. Lovie Smith needs a better effort from this side of the ball. Illinois was able to end a four-year bowl drought in large part because it led the conference last season with 28 turnovers forced.
When Illinois Has the Ball
The question should actually be: who will have the ball? Starting quarterback Brandon Peters was pulled from last week's start because he tested positive for COVID-19 and must sit out for 21 days, per Big Ten rules. As a result of his positive test, backup quarterback Isaiah Williams was sent into quarantine due to potential exposure to coronavirus. Third-string quarterback Matt Robinson got the start against the Boilermakers, but he only threw four passes before sustaining an ankle injury. So Coran Taylor took the reigns for the remainder of last week's game, and he completed 17-of-29 passes for 273 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions.
It was an important opportunity for the young sophomore, but make no mistake that the Illini will need to find some sort of stability under center for this week's game. One positive for the Illini is that the run game showed up against Purdue. Chase Brown and Mike Epstein combined for 136 of Illinois' 177 rushing yards, and Peters was the Illini's leading rusher at Wisconsin (75 yards). Despite the injuries, and the fact that 14 players didn't suit up because of COVID concerns, Illinois showed improvement on offense.
They outscored Purdue 14-0 in the fourth quarter, gained 472 total yards of offense, averaged 8.9 yards per pass attempt, and picked up 4.0 yards per run. Imagine how much more this team can do if everyone is healthy.
Minnesota leads the all-time series 39-30-3, but Illinois has won two of their last three matchups in Champaign (2018, '14). In fact, Illinois is 18-16-1 against Minnesota all-time at Memorial Stadium. The Illini may have the advantage at home, but Minnesota has a better offense, Illinois is struggling on defense, and the Fighting Illini are expected to be shorthanded again. The Golden Gophers take the win on Saturday.
Prediction: Minnesota 24, Illinois 17
Podcast: Week 10 Preview and Predictions
— 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.
(Rashod Bateman photo courtesy of gophersports.com)