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Minnesota Football vs Illinois: Preview - Key Matchups

The Minnesota Golden Gophers find their backs against the wall in the first of two must-win games to close out the regular season. First up: The Illinois Fighting Illini.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

With starting defensive tackles Steven Richardson and Scott Ekpe on the sidelines, the Gopher defense couldn't stop the run against Iowa, allowing the Hawkeyes to rush for 272 yards. Richardson pulled a calf muscle in practice prior to the Ohio State game and Ekpe has been out with an undisclosed injury since before the Purdue game, so there is no telling whether either of them will be back for Saturday against Illinois. That means the Gophers could be shorthanded against a Fighting Illini rushing attack that ranks 77th according to S&P+ but features two formidable running backs in Josh Ferguson and Ke'Shawn Vaughn. Both exploded for more than 100 rushing yards a piece against Purdue two weeks ago, but have otherwise been limited in the rest of conference play, with Ferguson out with a shoulder injury for several weeks before returning for the Purdue game.

Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt has had a bit of an up-and-down season. He hasn't thrown a lot of interceptions, but missing wide open receivers with off-the-mark throws has been fans' chief criticism. His wide receivers have done him no favors, dropping balls left and right. The Fighting Illini do like to spread the field on offense, which could pose problems for a Gopher secondary that is thin on depth without Damarius Travis, Jalen Myrick, Ace Rogers, and Craig James. Kunle Ayinde, in particular, has had a rough couple of weeks, and Minnesota has even had to insert true freshman KiAnte Harden at nickel. Not a good situation, but the Gophers will have to make due. The pass rush has shown signs of life, but poor tackling allowed Iowa quarterback CJ Beathard to run free. The good news is that Lunt isn't a running threat, but the Fighting Illini offensive line has been strong in pass protection this season, presenting another challenge for a defensive line that has struggled to create pressure at times.

With top target Mike Dudek lost for the year after tearing his ACL in the spring, Lunt has turned wide receiver Geronimo Allison into his top target, with 794 receiving yards on 57 receptions and 3 touchdowns on the season. But Allison is mired in a four-game touchdown drought and hasn't topped more than 4 receptions in his past three games, averaging just 31 yards a game over that same stretch. Desmond Cain and Malik Turner are also names to remember in the passing game. Cain had a huge game against Ohio State, hauling in 10 receptions for 102 yards.

Defensive Matchup To Watch: The Gophers' front seven vs the Fighting Illini's running backs. Illinois' best offensive performance of the season was a 48-14 blowout win over Purdue in which both Ferguson and Vaughn ran wild for a combined 313 rushing yards. Minnesota can't afford to be soft up front on defense. If Illinois can dominate in the trenches like Iowa did and allow Ferguson and Vaughn to grab large chunks of yardage on the ground, the Gophers are going to be in big trouble.

The Fighting Illini defense is much improved from a season ago. According to S&P+, Illinois ranks 9th overall in defense, 41st in rushing defense, and 12th in passing defense. The Fighting Illini are also tied for 34th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 22.3 points per game. But the problem is that the Illinois defense has been on the field a lot, with an offense that ranks 77th in the nation in time of possession.

But the Fighting Illini will have their hands full with a Gopher offense peaking at the end of the season after struggling at the start of conference play.

Much to the shock of #LeidnerTwitter, Mitch Leidner is averaging 289.5 passing yards over his last four games, a stretch that has seen the Gophers go up against passing defenses ranked 81st (Nebraska), 13th (Michigan), 3rd (Ohio State), and 49th (Iowa), according to S&P+. Wide receiver KJ Maye and tight end Brandon Lingen have emerged as Leidner's top targets in the passing game, with Maye leading all other receivers with 56 receptions, 630 receiving yards, and 4 touchdowns. Lingen has slipped into the role once occupied by Maxx Williams, topping 100 receiving yards in 2 of the last 3 games. The offensive line -- playing without four key contributors due to injuries -- also kept Leidner clean for the most part against Iowa, allowing just one sack.

Believe it or not, Minnesota is ranked 25th in passing offense according to S&P+. Let that sink in. But the rushing offense has been inconsistent at best. Poor run blocking has been the Achilles' heel of the offense for most of the season, but the running back position has also been banged up of late. Rodney Smith (ankle) was a game time decision against Iowa and did not play, but Shannon Brooks produced one of his best games of the season, rushing for 86 yards on 14 attempts with 1 touchdown -- and not to mention an awesome 42-yard touchdown pass to Drew Wolitarsky.

The Minnesota offensive line will be put to the test against a stout Illinois defensive front that has tallied at least six tackles for loss in all but one game this season. The Fighting Illini recorded just one sack against Ohio State, but JT Barrett was on his heels for most of the game, avoiding pressure from a relentless Illinois front seven. Prior to their one-sack effort last Saturday, the Fighting Illini had recorded three sacks in each of their last three games. Linebacker Dawuane Smoot is Illinois' sack leader, totaling 7 on the season, but TJ Neal is also a name to remember at linebacker, with a team-best 10 tackles for loss. Former walk-on defensive back Clayton Fejedelem is their leading tackler, with 115 total tackles and 2 interceptions. This Illinois defense is also tied for 37th in the nation in turnovers forced, with 12 interceptions and 6 fumble recoveries. Four of those interceptions have come courtesy of safety Taylor Barton.

Offensive Matchup To Watch: The Gophers' offensive line vs the Fighting Illini's front seven. In losses to Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Iowa, the Illinois defense allowed an average of 205 rushing yards, so establishing an effective ground game against the Fighting Illini is imperative to the Gophers' success on offense. The offensive line will need to open up holes for Brooks and Smith -- if he is healthy -- and also protect Leidner like it did against Iowa to keep the passing game clicking.

The two teams would appear to be even on paper. Both are fighting to become bowl-eligible, so don't expect either one to come out uninspired on Saturday. If the same kind of porous Gopher defense we saw against Nebraska and Iowa shows up, Minnesota will be in trouble, as the Fighting Illini have talent on offense, despite sputtering against everyone but Purdue. The Gopher offense appears to be clicking at the moment, but Illinois is tough up front on defense and the prospect of a shootout makes me nervous. You'd think that the game being in Minneapolis would give the Gophers the edge in an even matchup, but I just don't know what to expect from this depleted defense.

Are there other matchups in this game that you think could be the difference?