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In preparation for the Minnesota Gophers "Must-Win-to-Go-Bowling" matchup against the Illinois Fighting Illini, we picked the brain of Tom Fornelli, the founder, editor and head writer of the new SB Nation Illinois blog The Champaign Room. The answers to all of your Gopher/Illini queries coming up...
The Daily Gopher: Illinois was looked at as a potential darkhorse in the Leaders/East division year before the year, but it hasn't panned out. What are the reasons for the slow start under Tim Beckham?
The Champaign Room: A lot of people have mentioned the talent that Beckman inherited at Illinois based on last years defense and the amount of players taken in the NFL Draft, but I'm just not sure that was the case. For one thing, when you have that many players go in the draft, that means you are LOSING A LOT OF TALENT from your team. And the cupboards weren't exactly chock full of players after Ron Zook's last two recruiting classes before getting fired didn't really pan out. Jonathan Brown has been the only real star of those classes, and he's been battling injuries all year and will miss this weekend's game.
At the same time, though, this coaching staff seems to be lacking a purpose at times. Like there are 10 different men pulling in different directions on the same rope.
The Daily Gopher: Obviously this hasn't been a fun year for Illini fans, but what silver linings or bright spots have you seen in Beckham's first season?
The Champaign Room: When I find one I'll let you know. There really hasn't been any moment from this season that I've seen that gives me a lot of hope. I go back and forth on the whole "Fire Beckman" meme. Amazingly, during games on Saturday and Sunday, I agree with it, but during the week rationality creeps back in. Still, it could be a few years before this program gets back to competency, and I don't know that Beckman can survive that long.
The Daily Gopher: Nate Scheelhaase is a talented dual-threat QB who looked to be have breakout-star potential after a solid freshman season in 2010. Two years later, we're still waiting to see it. How has his development been this year, and do you see the breakout coming as a senior next season?
The Champaign Room: I think the change in the coaching staff has had a negative impact on Nate. He was very promising as a freshman, and had a bit of a sophomore slump last season. I was hoping he'd have a Juice Williams type of breakout season in his junior year, but he seems to be regressing with every passing week. His mechanics -- which were never exactly sound -- have flown out the window, and he's making bad reads both in his progressions and on option runs. Whether or not he'll have a breakout senior season, I'm not even sure he'll be the starter during his senior season anymore.
The Daily Gopher: Illinois' Big Ten schedule to date has been brutal. Are the Illini better than their record indicates?
The Champaign Room: No, I think our record is pretty indicative of how we've played as a team this season. Getting Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State on the road is rough, but Wisconsin and Michigan haven't really been Wisconsin and Michigan this year. But they looked like it against the Illini.
The Daily Gopher: As a Gopher fan, this game scares the bejeezus out of me. Based on their performances to date, Minnesota deserves to be favored, but as a Minnesota fan I've come to expect the unexpected, and I don't think anyone here is over-confident the Gophers can win. What are the keys to the game Saturday?
The Champaign Room: While there's still a lot of work to be done, I've been impressed with the improvement I've seen on your defensive line this season, and I think they're going to have a great day against this Illinois offensive line. And I get where you're coming from, as Indiana fans felt the same way a few weeks ago, and I felt that was a game the Illini would win. Well, we both know how that went, and an Indiana team that had 12 sacks all season had 7 that day. Only three teams in the country are giving up more sacks per game than the Illini. Minnesota will take advantage of that.
The Daily Gopher: Finally, how do you see the game going? Who wins and by how much?
The Champaign Room: He's only making his fourth start, and he's a freshman, but I honestly feel like the Gophers have the best quarterback in this matchup right now in Phillip Nelson. Because of that I see the Gophers pulling this one out. Final score will be something close to 24-17.