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Minnesota Football: Opponent Preview #11 Illinois Fighting Illini

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Lets just forget what happened in 2014 shall we?

Josh Ferguson is one of the best multi-purpose backs in the Big Ten
Josh Ferguson is one of the best multi-purpose backs in the Big Ten
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

UPDATE 8/28

Tim Beckman Is Bad Coach; Now Gone

Tim Beckman Is Bad Coach; Now Gone

Tim Beckman has been fired for a multitude of bad things. This could be good for Illinois, but probably not. In any case, this is an important piece of information that came out after this preview was published.

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It's almost #GameWeek and The Daily Gopher's game by game previews of Gophers opponents roll on. Next up is the Gophers second to last home/regular season game of the season, a contest in which Minnesota will be looking to redeem itself 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:

Last season was one of ups and downs for Illinois. The Illini went 3-1 in the non-conference portion of the schedule, losing only to Washington while beating three inferior opponents.  They then started the Big Ten 0-3 before the Gophers came to Champaign.  In what every Minnesota fan wishes they could forget, half the team got the flu, and they looked horrible in suffering their most embarrassing loss of the season to the Illini.  Illinois would then go lose their next two to Ohio State and Iowa, and had a record of 4-6. They needed to win out to make a bowl game and maybe save coach Tim Beckman's job, and did just that beating Purdue and Northwestern in back to back weeks to get to a bowl game.  They were promptly got throttled by Louisiana Tech, but they did get game #13.

Key Losses:

Illinois went through three quarterbacks a year ago, and two will not return in 2014.  Aaron Bailey threw just 22 passes before his Illini career was over.  Reilly O'Toole came in after an injury to Wes Lunt who replaced Bailey and played decently towards the end of the season ending with 1344 yards and ten touchdowns.  At running back, Illinois lost all its depth.  While the starter returns, several bench players have departed, and injuries in the first part of camp have a cornerback taking reps in practice carrying the ball.  Not good.  At receiver, Illinois did not have any players depart, but once again were hit with the injury bug as Mike Dukek who led the team as a freshman last season in catches and yards tore his ACL in practice and is gone for the season. Illinois will also be hurt on the offensive line where three starters depart taking with them 103 career starts.

On defense, a poor run defense (unless they were playing Minnesota) loses its nose tackle.  Austin Teitsma departs after leading the Illini with 9.5 tackles for loss in 2014. The secondary will also need to rebuild as both safety Zane Petty and rover Earnest Thomas III are gone from the defensive backfield.  Petty led the Illini in tackles with 79, and Thomas was the teams best blitzer who tied for the team lead with 9.5 tackles for loss. Illinois will also have to replace punter Justin Duvernois, one of the best punters not named Mortell in the Big Ten.

Key Returners:

Illinois has their quarterback to start the season in Wes Lunt.  The former Oklahoma State transfer had a good 2014 season throwing for 1763 yards and 14 touchdowns before getting hurt.  He came back form his injury near the end of the season and was terribly ineffective, so it will be interesting t see if he has regained his form.  Illinois has a stud running back in Josh Ferguson.  He ran for only 741 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2014, but also caught 50 passes out of the backfield for another 427 yards.  He is incredibly explosive, and as long as he stays healthy, things will be ok.  If he gets hurt? Illinois is in deep trouble.  Lunt will have a few people to throw to besides Ferguson.  Geronimo Allison is the leading returner who will play this fall after Dudek's injury.  On the O-line, Illinois will rely on right guard Ted Karras and his 31 career starts to lead.

On defense, Illinois retains most of its front seven.  Defensive end Jihad ward will be counted upon to add to his three sacks from a year ago.  All three starting linebackers return, led by Mason Monheim who had 77 tackles a season ago.  Illinois also returns both starting cornerbacks including V'Angelo Bentley who is taking running back snaps and could play both ways if injuries require it for the Illini this season.  Both kickers the Illini used last season return, but neither impressed a year ago and it will be a battle to see who is least worst and can win the job this fall.

Question Marks??

Is Wes Lunt the answer at QB?  Can he stay healthy?  If he's not, then Tim Beckman might as well pack his bags.

Secondly, can Illinois ride Josh Ferguson enough to get back to 6-6 and maybe save Beckman's job again?  The toughest non-conference game is a trip to North Carolina, but home games against Kent State and Middle Tennessee are not gimmies.  With Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio State all at home, can Illinois find an upset? (probably not)

Thirdly, What kind of fun antic can we expect from Beckman this year?  After the Penn State parking lot scandal, and the injury controversy last season, we should be due for something good.  What do we think it will be?  Leave your ideas in the comments...

What Does It All Mean For Minnesota?

The Gophers played about as poorly as they could a year ago in Champaign and it killed them.  Well...so did the stomach flu, but still, this was a game the Gophers should have won and they choked it away.  Illinois was poor against the run in most every game last year, and while they may be improved some, the Gophers line should still be able to make some holes.  They need to take advantage and run the Illini to death.  It will probably be cold, so the Gophers should use the weather to their advantage and play some manball.

On defense, the Gophers need to stop Ferguson first and foremost.  You do that, and you make Wes Lunt beat you.  He's a decent qb, but with the weak offensive line for the Illini, the Gophers should be able to get pressure and create turnover opportunities.

Final Analysis:

The Gophers should have a pretty good idea by this game where they stand in the Big Ten West race.  If the Gophers need a win here to set up a winner take all battle the next weekend against Wisconsin, you can be sure that they will be up to the challenge.  This is one of those games that you would love to see Minnesota blow out an inferior team, but I just have a feeling the Illini will hang around.  Minnesota at home and hopefully not flu-ridden should have enough in the tank, but it may be scary for a half.  Gophers pull away in the end and win 34-24.