Raise your hand if you thought Minnesota would be 5-2 going into the Illinois game. If you’re disappointed by the start, you’re hardly alone. But a bit of perspective is useful here: the Gophers have rarely had such a good a start to a season, and those two losses (to a suddenly good Penn State team and to an Iowa squad we don’t always match up well with) could have gone the other way.
The Illinois game doesn’t seem especially daunting on paper. Then again, the 2014 Illinois game is also a thing that happened, so we can approach all forms of optimism with utmost caution. Or we can just enjoy the ride for what it is.
What’s going on with the Gophers heading into the annual battle with the Illini?
- Injury report: Brandon Lingen is out indefinitely following a foot injury sustained against Rutgers. Tracy Claeys was reluctant to rule him out for the rest of the season, but the injury will take at least a few weeks to heal. In addition, right tackle Jonah Pirsig (sprained ankle) and defensive tackle Steven Richardson (concussion) will not play this weekend.
- For Lingen, this has already been a rough season. He was held out of the Oregon State game to help rehab after shoulder surgery in the offseason. He returned against Indiana State only to leave the game with a broken clavicle. Quarterback Mitch Leidner expressed sympathy for Lingen while also noting what a loss this is for the team:
When [Lingen] played against Indiana State, it was just amazing, how things just opened up a lot more because of his route-running ability, and it’s so difficult for linebackers and even safeties to have to try to guard him because of his size and speed.
- Against the Illini, the Gophers will have almost a full-strength secondary. Cornerbacks KiAnte Hardin and Ray Buford, along with safety Dior Johnson, will be able to play on the road, despite being under restraining orders at this time. While the orders remain in effect, the players are effectively unavailable for home games. Hennepin County judge Mel Dickstein set an evidentiary hearing for November 3, so that a decision can be reached before the Gophers next home game against Purdue.
- In news that most of us don’t like at all, NDSU will return to Minneapolis for a football game in 2019. Fortunately, it will not be to take on the Gophers. Instead, the Bison will take on Butler in the first ever Division I football game at Target Field. (If you didn’t know Butler played Division I football, welcome to the club).
- This is intended to be a football-specific post, but Minnesota basketball is also in the news, and not just because roundball season is almost here. Senior guard Akeem Harris created a bit of a stir with a tweet suggesting he might transfer. A day later, the tweet was gone and Springs reaffirmed his interest in playing for the Gophers. No doubt Richard Pitino breathed a sigh of relief, especially with vaunted transfer Davonte Fitzgerald out for the season with an ACL injury.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Illinois...
- Injury report: Wide receiver Mike Dudek is out for the season as he rehabs a second ACL tear in his left knee. Running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who has only played limited minutes so far this season, left the Michigan game with an apparent lower leg injury but is likely to play against the Gophers.
- It’s not clear who will get the nod at quarterback, however. Lovie Smith is playing his cards close to his chest, and any one of Wes Lunt, Jeff George, Jr., or Chayce Crouch could start against Minnesota. However, Lunt and Crouch are both not 100%, and George may be the only healthy guy on the depth chart. His lack of experience was apparent, but Smith liked what he saw from George.
- The Illini will wear the same uniform combo as they wore on Homecoming in 2014: grey-on-grey with white helmets, designed to honor Red Grange. Their opponent that day? Minnesota. We all remember (and wish we could forget) how that game turned out.
- When asked to preview the Gophers, Lovie Smith said the following, and may have won some sort of award for most vague coachspeak ever in the process:
They play good football. Defensively, they play hard. What they do, they do well. Offensively, probably a combination of some of the offenses we've played before, maybe Western Michigan a little bit. They can run a traditional offensive tackle.
- Oh, and finally, they’re not done with Red Grange homages at Illinois:
The first 5,000 fans through the doors Saturday will get a mini-Red Grange statue. #Illini— Illini Football (@IlliniFootball) October 24, 2016
➡️ https://t.co/EIl3i3e8dS pic.twitter.com/kRiw5plB6P