And it all comes down to this. Well ok fine, technically the Gophers have three games remaining to get win number six and bowl eligibility, but let's be honest here: if it's happening, by far their best chance is this Saturday. That's when the Gophers travel to the Champaign of Big Ten towns (at least the "Champaign of Big Ten towns named Champaign") and take on Illinois, who is the worst team in the conference this season bar none. How bad is Illinois? Bad enough that the Gophers are actually FAVORED in this game. For realz. They're are 2.5 point favorites, and if you give 3 points for home-field, that means on a neutral field the Gophers should be 5.5 point favorites. The Gophers haven't been favored on the road in the Big Ten since...well I have no idea, but it's been awhile, I know that.
This would be Jerry Kill's first B1G road victory, and the program's first since they beat Illinois in Champaign the last time on November 13, 2010. As Gopher fans we can't take anything for granted, especially what looks like a winnable game. The last time I was confident about Minnesota winning on the road? Against Iowa at the end of September, and we know how that one turned out.
But this is different. Look at whatever stat you prefer, and chances are, Tim Beckham's Fighting Illini are last in the B1G: scoring offense, scoring defense, total offense, rush offense, pass efficieny defense, punt return average, 1st downs gained, third down conversion, and sacks against. It's a team that hasn't won since Sept 12 against Charleston Southern, and whose only other win came against Western Michigan in the season opener. This is a team who cannot run the ball, which is convenient because that's what Minnesota's defense has really struggled to stop. They've allowed 32 QB sacks (the next closest is Ohio State at 22), which at one point is something the Gopher defense did very well, and while their defense has been decent especially when you consider how much they've been on the field this season, this won't be anything close to what we saw against Michigan or Wisconsin of late. Philip Nelson and the offense will have ample opportunity to move the ball.
All of this is to say the Gophers absolutely deserve to be favored, or perhaps it'd be more accurate to say Illinois deserves NOT to be favored in this game. Either way, this is a game the Gophers should be expected to win. Of course, that doesn't mean they will. The Illini have played a tough B1G slate and have gotten killed, losing by at least two touchdowns against Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, and an Indiana squad that oh-by-the-way beat Iowa last week. Remember how we did against Iowa? Just checking. For Illinois, they're beaten, they're battered, but I doubt they're broken, and they have to be looking at this game as a real chance to get a Big Ten victory and kick somebody's ass for once.
Statistically, their defense has been better than the Purdue defense Nelson and the offense tore apart two weeks ago, and I doubt the Illini will be biting on all those pump fakes. Offensively Illinois have flat stunk, but QB Nate "Double Vowel" Scheelhaase was a rising star just two seasons ago, and all it takes is for him to make a couple of plays to build confidence.
Obviously, the Gophers aren't at a point where they can get over-confident and expect to just walk out there and win games. While they should be favored and on paper have been the better team this season, they need to prove it on the field. One last time to bring up the Iowa game, but that was the last time this team was brimming with confidence and they were playing an opponent who they were supposed to be better than, or at least to that point who they had played better than. Just like that game I'd be shocked if Illinois doesn't come out fast and try and smack the Gophers in the mouth just like the Hawkeyes did. Minnesota is still learning how to deal with adversity and how to overcome a mishap or bad turn of events (see the Devin Gardner 60 yard TD bomb from last week on third and a million that ended up turning the game around for Michigan). They had some rough starts go from bad to worse against Iowa and Northwestern, but were able to bounce back against Purdue. That's the kind of toughness and tenacity we'll hope to see.
This time next week I WANT to sit here talking about what bowl game the Gophers could go to and whether they've got a chance to win one more against Nebraska or Michigan State. I might want it, but this team is not there yet. Saturday would be another big step in the right direction. We're not going to shut down the program if they lose, we're not going to declare Jerry Kill's tenure here a failure, but fair or not I feel like it's going to put much more pressure on him for next year, and some of our wonderfully negative media members will be sure to giddily take their shots. I know perception doesn't win or lose games and Kill and his staff don't care much either way, but for what it's worth, this game would help the perception of his program in a big way if they can get to a bowl in his second season, and build towards a promising 2013.
As you can probably tell from the tone of this post, I'm not excited for Saturday. I'm not even cautiously optimistic, but just plain anxious about how this will play out. If Minnesota plays well against Illinois, they should win, and we can all breathe a little (or for me, a LOT) easier these last two weeks. If they don't, it could be a long, long 10 months until the 2013 season begins because while a loss won't guarantee their season is over, it will feel like it might as well be.