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Minnesota vs. Illinois Prediction: Similar-Styled Teams Set to Meet in Key Big Ten West Matchup

Fighting Illini riding four-game winning streak while Golden Gophers looking to join crowded divisional race.

Fresh off a return to the Top 25, the Illinois Fighting Illini look to strengthen their ranking and maintain a lead in the crowded Big Ten West when they host the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Saturday.

Illinois (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten) won a defensive chess match at Iowa last week to earn the program's first Top 25 ranking since 2011 and claim a piece of first place in the division. Minnesota (4-1, 1-1) is coming off of its bye after falling to Purdue two weeks ago.

Related: College Football Predictions for Every Game in Week 7

The Illini are tied atop the West standings with Purdue and Nebraska. The Boilermakers host the Cornhuskers on Saturday, so a win by Illinois maintains a share for first while a victory by the Gophers slots them right behind whichever team wins in West Lafayette.

The Illini are riding a four-game winning streak, their longest since 2019. The last time they won five in a row was in 2011 when they started that season 6-0.

Minnesota at No. 24 Illinois

Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 15 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Live Stream: fuboTV (Start your free trial)
Spread: Minnesota -3.5
Tickets: As low as $35 on*

When Minnesota Has the Ball

The bye came at the perfect time for the Golden Gophers, as it allowed running back Mohamed Ibrahim the time needed to heal from an ankle injury that caused him to miss the Purdue game. With no Ibrahim to anchor the ground attack, Minnesota managed just 47 rushing yards in the 20-10 loss.

With Ibrahim expected back for Saturday, the offense welcomes back its top playmaker and one of the country's most productive rushers. Even though he's played in just four games, Ibrahim is fifth in the Big Ten with 567 rushing yards as he's averaging 141.8 per game. He's averaging 6.4 yards per carry and has scored eight times on the ground. Ibrahim also has gone over the 100-yard mark in 13 straight contests.

Ibrahim's return also puts more emphasis on what will be the key matchup in this game — Minnesota's prolific ground attack vs. Illinois' stingy run defense. The Gophers are fifth in the nation in rushing offense at 245 yards per game while the Fighting Illini boast the No. 3 run defense. Ibrahim by himself has run for more yards than Illinois has given up (403) in six games. The Illini also have surrendered just one rushing touchdown so far.

But Minnesota isn't just a ground-and-pound-only offense either, not with veteran quarterback Tanner Morgan at the helm. He's not asked to throw the ball as much compared to his peers, but Morgan is second in the Big Ten in yards per attempt (10.2) and is completing 70.5 percent of his passes. He's thrown for 1,143 yards with seven touchdowns and four interceptions.

Morgan misses No. 1 wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell, who is out for the season with a leg injury, but he has other options to throw to. Michael Brown-Stephens (233 receiving yds.) has taken over for Autman-Bell, and tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford (15.7 ypr) is another key target. The offensive line also has done its job in both pass protection (four sacks allowed) and opening up lanes for the running game.

The Gophers will need balance to have success against Illinois' defense, which besides its lofty ranking against the run, is No. 1 in the country in scoring defense (8.0 ppg) and No. 2 in total defense (227.8 ypg). The Illini also are second in the Big Ten in sacks (21), with four different defenders having at least three.

When Illinois Has the Ball

Quarterback Tommy DeVito left last week's game against Iowa with an ankle injury. His status is up in the air, and it would be a blow for this offense if he's unable to go. The Syracuse transfer has thrown for 1,163 yards while completing 68.9 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and only two interceptions. If DeVito does have to sit this one out, Artur Sitkowski, who completed 13 of 19 passes after replacing him last week, will take over.

But the strength of the Illini's offense isn't the passing game. It's a ground attack powered by the nation's leading rusher, Chase Brown. His 879 yards and 151 carries are the most by any FBS player, which is also good for a healthy 5.8 yards per attempt. Brown is a big reason why Illinois is 29th nationally at 195.5 rushing yards per game.

When the Illini do throw the ball, wide receivers Isaiah Williams (team-leading 38 receptions), Pat Bryant (313 yards), and Brian Hightower will likely be the intended targets. Those three are responsible for two-thirds of the team's receiving yards and five of the nine touchdown catches.

As impressive as Illinois' defense has been this season, Minnesota is No. 1 in the country in total defense (222.0 ypg) and second overall in both points (8.8) and passing yards (140.6) allowed per game. The Gophers also are solid against the run (81.4 ypg), meaning the Illini probably won't be able to rely solely on Brown.

Final Analysis

This is a fascinating matchup given the similarities between the two teams, starting with ground-oriented offenses and extending to strong performances from each defense. Illinois has won four in a row and is the ranked team, but Minnesota's lone loss came when its best player was out with an injury.

Ibrahim's return cannot be overstated, while the Fighting Illini have some injury concerns with their starting quarterback, so give the slightest edge to the Golden Gophers in a game where both teams will likely have to earn every yard. A Minnesota win also adds more intrigue to an already crowded Big Ten West race, and who doesn't love more drama?

Prediction: Minnesota 21, Illinois 20

Podcast: Complete Week 7 Preview, Predictions, and Picks Against the Spread + Latest in Coaching News

— 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.

*Price as of publication.