It is Illni week and there seems to be very litle anticipation within Gopher Nation. Sir Tipsy as not yet taken his scientific gauge of the pulse of Gopher Nation but nobody seems to be juiced about this opportunity go on the road and take on Juice. It is interesting how just two years ago the Illini were last in the Big Ten in consecutive seasons. After catapulting to the Rose Bowl last year this is not considered a team with the talent to contend. This is a good team and a will be a big test for the Gopher defense. And from a fan's perspective both of these teams are fun to watch and if Minnesota can make a game of it this will be a fun Saturday morning.
Joining me as we get to know a little bit about the Illini is (not your average) Joe (I bet he's never heard that before) from Paint the Town Orange. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about his favorite football club.
1. Nobody can dispute that the Illini offense is incredibly dangerous but the defense ranks near the bottom of the league in points allowed, 3rd down conversion and rushing yards allowed. Does this concern you or is there a reasonable explanation?
I would say what has most to do with the statistical standing of Illinois in the Big Ten would probably be the fact that we have faced two of the most potent offenses in the country right now in Mizzou and Penn State. Together those two teams dropped 90 points and huge amounts of yards on the Illini defense. This will not help your stats. Overall though the defense has been harmed by key players missing time, specifically Josh Brent and Donsay Hardeman our starting DT and SS missed most of the first 3 games. This made our best DE, Will Davis move over to DT, which he is not suited for. On top of that our top nickel back Miami Thomas and another DT Sirod Williams are both out with season ending knee injuries. Britt Miller and Martez Wilson both have had terrible games defending the run so far, but Miller has recovered drastically in the last 2 games.
I have to correct you on this point because Juice's best statistical game of his career was just last Saturday where he was 13 for 26, 310 yards and 2 passing touchdowns. The progress from last year's Juice to this year's Juice is pretty clear through the first 5 games. Juice has lit up the scoreboard with his arm more than once this season in a way that was not possible his first two years here. It is true that he still has few INTs so far this year, but the INTs against Mizzou and PSU all came when the Illini offense was forced out of their ground attack because they were playing from a 2 TD hole. Situations where a team needs long passes in a short amount of time are a good recipe for turnovers. On Saturday against Minnesota Juice will more than likely not be in this situation.
3. Gopher fans are excited about their 5-1 season. We have already surpassed nearly everyone's expectations, but now we want more. Be honest is it conceivable in your mind that Minnesota could come in and steal a road win in Champagne? Follow up question...Is there any chance of a let down for Illinois after drubbing Michigan then coming home to face a team they dismantled a year ago?
Anything is possible in college football, I was extremely dissapointed in the play from the Illini when they nearly gave the game away to an inferior UL Lafeyette team. If for whatever reason, the offense does not come to play on Saturday and gets off to a slow start, and the defense looks like it is running through mud as it has at times the Gophers could capitalize early and try and make the Illini come from behind. It could happem. The Illini were not near as geared up for the game last week as they were against PSU or Mizzou, so I do not think there will be an emotional let down. But in complete honesty I do not see it happening, the D-line is finally getting the penetration D has needed all season now that Brent is back. From what I saw last week against Indiana I have serious doubts as to how good Minnesota is. Illinois does not statistically rank very high but I would wager it is a much better defense than Bowling Green FAU or Montana State. If Minnesota is close or wins this game, I will frankly be shocked and very disappointed.
4. Since 1995 the Illini has finished last in the Big Ten more than anybody else and were at their worst in the first couple years of the Zook era. I know Zook changed things by bringing in superior talent, but in your opinion what did it take to turn around the mindset and culture of losing? Has the Illini fanbase moved from passionate fans to a level arrogance that they ARE an elite Big Ten program?
It is somewhat cliche to say that the talent level in Champaign has shot up dramatically with the arrival of Ron Zook but it cannot be understated. Zook undertook a major change at Illinois shaking up the roster and being unafraid to start raw talent over experience. The reason that Illinois has finished last so many times over the years has been the inability to recruit Chicago, and the inability to recruit a quality QB. Kurt Kitner and Juice Williams are the exceptions rather than the rule in Champaign. As for the fans, I am sure there are plenty who already feel the sense of entitlement that even a little success brings. What defines an elite team in my opinion is your coach and your performance on the field, teams will not roll over just because your uniform says Michigan or Ohio State. I think that most Illini fans think that this can either be the start of sustained success or end as it did with Ron Turner or John Mackovic, a few good years and then evaporation. If you asked an Iowa fan 3 years ago whether or not they were an "elite" Big Ten program they would have emphatically said yes. This things change from year to year and I think most people realize that.
When Illinois has the ball...
First rule when the Illini have the ball is do not take your eye off the TV. Offensively they are in the same category of Ohio State with dangerous weapons at all skill positions. We all know about Juice Williams and what he brings to the table. He is a super athlete who will beat you with his legs and can beat you with his arm.
Behind Juice is Daniel Dufrene who leads the team with 442 yards rushing on 74 carries. He took the starting job in this his sophomore season when Rashard Mendenhall took his 1,600+ yard seaosn and left a year early for the NFL. DD was "only" a three star kid out of high school but has utilized his great speed to be a big play threat for his offense.
And their third weapon may actually be their most dangerous. Sophomore receiver, Arrelious Benn was a five star recruit and ranked one of the top five kids coming out of high school in 2007. He is big, fast and has NFL skils. The Illini find ways to get him the ball by motioning him into the backfield for options with Juice and of course he is a primary target in the passing game.
When the Illini have the ball Minnesota has to slow down the run game and force Juice to pass. When he throws the ball he has a tendancy to throw to the other team. I have watch Illinoi play a handful of times over the last two years. Juice is very good but he does have a tendancy to not see open receivers or just flat out miss them. Stopping this running game is much easier said than done. Remember Pryor and Wells running all over the Gophers? This isn't quite the same but it is similar.
When Minnesota has the ball...
We have to establish a run game. I've wanted to see an established ground game many times this season, if we are going to see it this year it has to be this weekend in Champagne. Illinois ranks second to last in the Big Ten and still would be even if you take away the 226 yards given up on the ground to Missouri in week 1. This is not to say that they are terrible and we'll be able to run at will, but this is an area of weakness and we need to run the ball to keep their offense off the field.
Joe did point out to us that they recently got their defensive line back to full strength, but moving a DE to DT and back to DE isn't the only problem. And it isn't about giving up big chunks of yards to good teams like Penn State and Missouri. Eastern Illinois' Travorus Bell ran for 183 yards on 15 carries which is his only 100 yard day of the season.
It may not come easy so we'll need som creativity and some better offensive line play to get the run game moving downfield.
In the passing game I have high hopes for another big game out of Eric Decker. Teams have been able to move the ball on these guys and I am convinced that Eric Decker vs. anybody in their defensive backfield is an advantage for the Gophers. If Weber is given time I'm convinced we can move the ball through the air. I'd rather see it done on the ground where we can consume some clock but I'll take whatever the Illini defense which gives up just under 30 points per game will give us.
What to expect...
That is tough to say. I expected points last week and was treated to a defensive battle (or offensive struggle). I still think Illinois will score plenty of points this week. The question is can we slow them down a little and then can we get in the endzone on a regular basis as well.
The first thing I am expecting to see is the return of the 3-4 defense. While Illinois is a dangerous running team, I don't think they are a power running team by any stretch. I hope we see linebackers out there who can help to string out any outside runs and who can keep Juice guessing as to where the blitz is coming from. The Ohio State offense is similar in that it has multiple weapons including a dynamic quarterback. But they also are a power running team with a very good offensive line. Dufrene and the Illini OL are good but they are not so much a slam the ball down your throat kind of offense.
My second expectation that I think we can count on is a win in the special teams department. Illinois has struggled in covering kicks and we have done very well. I can't go so far as to call a housed kickoff by Stoudermire, but we should get good field position on a regular basis.
What I really expect (read: hope) is a "blah" effort by the Illini. They are back home for the first time after two road conference games to face a couple teams they feel they should have no problems taking care of. Hopefully the 17-44 drubbing of 2007 is fresh in their minds and they will come out flat, how we come out will determine if we make a game of it or not.
I expect that we will come out ready to compete for our first Big Ten Road win in a long time. Brewster has been pushing buttons all week to get this team motivated. Whether it is firing them up to win one for the Gipper in his homecoming to Champagne or if it is pointing out the obvious disrespecting of the Gophers being the "homecoming opponent." You can be sure the Gophers will be ready to play.
This game is a great opportunity to demonstrate that we are a competitive Big Ten team. There is no doubt that Illinois is more talented and the fact that they have experienced success which gives them a level of confidence that we just do not have. But they do have flaws and if we come out and execute we can steal one this week. The magic number is three. Three Illini turnovers to our zero and we will win.
GN - Ultimately I don't see it happening for us. I would love to call a win, but just can't do it. This is much more winable than Ohio State and we are capable of winning even without an Illini collapse. We make it close and show a great effort but the Gophers come up short.
Minnesota - 27
Illinois - 31
PJS - in a shocking turn of events our resident pessimist has been drinking the kool aid this week and is calling a Gopher victory. Or maybe he is convinced the changes we have seen from 2007 to 2008 are not a fluke but this team is getting better each and every week. It is just a matter of time before PJS is picking us to win the Rose Bowl or whatever the Pac-10 has to offer. Then we look at his official pick in the TDG Pick'em contest and see that he picks the Illini. In the investment world this is hedging your bet!
Minnesota - 42
Illinois - 38
Paint the Town Orange - Joe, is a homer and blinded by his orange glasses. On the bright side he thinks it will be closer than last year!
Minnesota - 17
Illinois - 35
Please give us your predictions in the comments and come back to join us Saturday morning for a live chat during the game. It is always a good time and a great way to vent your frustrations or elations.