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Minnesota Football: Opponent Preview #8 Illinois Fighting Illini

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The Gophers last "easier" road game comes in Champaign.

Eric Francis

We are getting closer and closer to the start of the 2014 Gopher Football season!  We here at The Daily Gopher will continue our quick previews of the Gophers opponents. Next up is the Gophers' next road game against the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Name: Illinois Fighting Illini
Location: Champaign, Illinois
Enrollment:32,281
Conference: Big Ten (West Division)
Notable Alumni: Roger Ebert, Bill Geist, Nick Offerman,  Jerry Colangelo, Hugh Hefner, James Brady, Dick Butkus, Jeff George
Bill Connelly Preview Link: Here!



Last Season:

Illinois's season looked as though it was going to be off to a decent start.  They began the year 2-0 after a throttling of Cincinnati 45-17.  A narrow loss to Washington and another blowout win over Miami, Ohio ended the non-conference portion of the season at 3-1.  And then all hell broke loose.  They would go 1-7 in the Big Ten, only coming within 17 points in two of their seven losses.  Their only Big Ten win was over woeful Purdue.  It was not a great second year for Tim Beckman. The numbers don't look much better. They ended the season 60th in the nation in offense but really dropped the ball finishing 100th in defense.

Key Losses:

The Illini will be another team on the Gopher's schedule breaking in a new quarterback after the graduation of Nathan Scheelhaase.  He threw for 3,272  yards and 21 touchdowns for the Illini a year ago.  He also added an additional 271 yards rushing and another four touchdowns.   It will be a big hole to fill in the Illini offense. Whomever wins the quarterback job will also have to find new targets to throw to.  The top three receivers for Illinois have moved on, including leading receiver Steve Hull who had 59 catches for 993 yards in 2013.  On the offensive line, Illinois is in fairly good shape, losing only right tackle Corey Lewis.

Defensively, Illinois will have to see if their young defense from a season ago can improve its putrid performance.  Two of the Illini's starting defensive linemen are gone in Houston Bates and Tim Kynard. Illinois also will lose its starting Will linebacker, Jonathan Brown.  Brown led the Illini in tackles in 2013 with 119, 15 of which were for a loss.  It will be a big blow to the middle of an already porous defense.

Key Returners:

The biggest returner for Illinois will be running back Josh Ferguson. He ran for 779 yards and seven touchdowns a season ago. He also added 550 yards and 50 catches out of the backfield.  Those numbers look more impressive when you realize he averages 5.5 yards per carry, and 8.7 yards per reception.  The offense will run through him early in the fall.  Four-fifths of the Illini offensive line also return, bringing back with it a career 94 starts.  It will be one of the most experienced lines in the Big Ten, but will need to improve to see the Illini offense as a whole continue to improve.

Bill C's Wisdom and Statistical Wizardy

Defensively, senior nose tackle Austin Teitsma will lead Illinois.  He only had 53 tackles a year ago, but 5.5 of them were behind the line of scrimmage.  Middle linebacker Mason Monheim will anchor the returning linebacker corps.  He had 97 tackles a year ago including 6.5 for loss.  The complete Illini secondary returns for the 2014 season.  Senior Earnest Thomas III is the star of the defense, and has high NFL potential.  He was second on the team a year ago in tackles with 101.  He also had seven pass breakups.  If he can turn some of those PBUs into interceptions this season, the Illini's rough defense from a season ago can improve.

Illinois also returns V'Angelo Bentley.  He was the return man for the Illini last season and was one of only eight players (including Minnesota's Marcus Jones) to return both a kickoff and punt for a touchdown last year.  Kicker Taylor Zalewski was nearly perfect on his kicks from 40 yards or less a year ago, but only 2-5 beyond 40.

Question Marks??

Who will be the Illini's starting quarterback?  Illinois returns two quarterbacks from a year ago who saw limited action in Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey.  However, the leader after spring practice and so far through the fall is former Oklahoma State quarterback and now Illinois transfer Wes Lunt.  Lunt started as a true freshman for a portion of the season for the Cowboys, but was soon dropped on the depth chart and chose to transfer.  He has shown good ability averaging over 13 yards per completion at Oklahoma State, but was a bit interception prone.  Time will tell to see if Illinois OC Bill Cubit can get him more consistent.

The next biggest question will be can the Illini defense improve?  Even if the offense has success again, finishing 100th in the nation will not help you win many games in the Big Ten.  Illinois should have some time to see what they can do with two easy non-conference games before a trip to Seattle to face the Huskies.

Thirdly, will Tim Beckman have a job at the end of the season?  He has definitely been mentioned as having the hottest seat in the Big Ten, and another 4-8 record may send him on his way.  He does get a bit of an easier schedule than last season,  but will likely have to win two of three games against Minnesota, Penn State, or Northwestern to make a bowl game.


What Does It All Mean For Minnesota?

The Gophers also didn't get to play a trainwreck of an Illini team last season.  The Gophers should have an advantage, but no road game in the Big Ten will be easy.  The good news is that Illinois' strengths will face-off directly with the Gophers' strengths.  Illinois should have a good passing game but the Gopher secondary should be able to handle Lunt and company.  If the Gophers can contain Ferguson, it should succeed.  On offense, the Gophers will be able to run on a defense that may have a decent secondary, but will be weak up the middle on the line and linebackers.  If they can control the running game, they should be able to leave Champaign with a win.

Final Analysis:

This is a must win for the Gophers to make a bowl game.  Road wins in the Big Ten are never easy, but this is one you have to have if you are going to be a quality team looking to take the next step.  The Gophers are well positioned against the Illini, and if they play their game, should not struggle.  The Gophers run game should control the pace of the game, and while Illinois will look to throw early and often, the Gophers will be ready on the backside.  Minnesota wins fairly handily 34-17.