Minnesota Gopher football vs Illinois: Ron Zook's swan song?

Gophers! Illini! End of season rivalry!

Not as exciting ending the season against someone who isn't Iowa or Wisconsin. We'll never get Iowa back now, and if Wisconsin keeps ending their season with Penn State and those games keep meaning something...I don't know, I'd still rather see a rivalry game to end the season. Looking at the matchups, it should be Gophers vs Wisconsin, Illinois vs Northwestern and the battle for that wonderfully ugly trophy that is Penn State vs Michigan State. Then again Minnesota did get to keep Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan AND Nebraska on the schedule every year, which now doesn't seem like such a good idea.

Anyway, where was ? Illinois, right. This has to be it for The Zooker, right? Illinois starts 6-0, everything looks promising...and then the schedule gets tough and they face three ranked teams plus Ohio State and Purdue and all o' a sudden they've lost 5 straight. That, friends, is a nose dive. The Illini was the dark-horse pick in the East division, and I bought into QB Nate Scheelhaase making the leap, but that doesn't look so good now. Scheelhaase is actually 4th in the Big Ten in both passing yards per game and passing efficiency, but let's call it a distant fourth since he's only thrown for 12 TD's and hasn't eclipsed 2000 yards yet. He IS their leading rusher though with 773 yards. Offensively they've been almost exactly average, but the surprise comes on defense...

Would you believe the Illini have the fourth best defense in the B1G? Because I didn't until I looked at the stats this morning. I was surprised because I just haven't heard anything about the quality of Illinois' defense all season, and yet there they are: fourth in total defense, second in rush defense, fourth in pass defense, fourth in pass efficiency defense, and they lead the league in sacks with 34- or 20 more than the Gophers have OR to put in even more perspective the Gophers have 33 sacks TOTAL the past three seasons. So yeah, Illinois can get to the QB.

So while Illinois' season hasn't been a total disaster and they're still bowl eligible...doesn't this still mean the end for head coach Ron Zook? The 2008 Rose Bowl team that went 9-3 looks to be the exception to his tenure there (2007 season- 2008 Rose Bowl. Got it?), and with five straight losses this year, win or lose Saturday you'd think they'll be making an announcement Sunday or Monday that Illinois is looking for a new head coach. Since there's no other former coach who couldn't hack it at Florida available again, who knows which direction they'll go. I just hope it isn't Mike Leach.

But that still leaves a game to play Saturday, and wouldn't it be fitting for the Gophers only B1G wins to be against Iowa and Illinois in 2010...and 2011? Looking at Illinois' defensive stats, Q and the offense are going to have their work cut out for them, but they've moved the ball well in three of their past four games, so hopefully it continues. Hopefully the red zone turnovers and key mistakes don't continue, as it was hard to get excited last week over out-gaining Northwestern's high-powered offense (amazing that there's not even a hint of sarcasm in that statement) or having the best rushing game since the Mason era with 269 yards at 5.3 per carry when Q was forcing throws at bad times, and when he made good ones, Malcolm Moulton dropped them.

The same Q who made mistakes last week is the same one who led two fourth quarter scoring drives against Iowa, so if he can cut down on his mistakes and his receivers can actually catch the ball, they could be in for a good day. That is, if the offensive line can continue to hold up and give him protection. The Gophers are down to their reserve-reserves across the line, and yet they keep finding ways. They'll get their toughest test to date protecting the QB, and part of that is going to be running the ball well to keep the defense honest.

It'll be senior day, and you'd hope Minnesota is motivated by that, and wanting to end the season with a win. For Illinois, perhaps they'll be motivated to play for their coach, or perhaps not. Illinois has the better team on paper, but can they stop their 5 game slide before they go bowling? Either way it's the likely the end of the Zooker in Champaign, and the end of a rough first season for Jerry Kill. Hopefully it ends on a positive note for the Gophers, and we can start looking forward to 2012.

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