The Minnesota Golden Gophers have their second winning streak of the season after needing a dramatic last-second field goal to
avoid complete disaster against the worst team in the Big Ten beat Rutgers. Yay! But let’s not dwell on the past. The Illinois Fighting Illini are up next! And before Minnesota heads to Champaign on Saturday, we have Trevor Vallese, a writer for SB Nation’s Illinois blog The Champaign Room, here to answer a few questions about the Gophers’ next opponent.
The Daily Gopher: Illinois is 2-5, but four of their losses have come against teams ranked in the Top 25. Then again, the Fighting Illini also lost at home to Purdue, who fired their head coach a week later. What were the expectations for Illinois coming into this season? And how are you evaluating this team's performance the rest of the year?
Trevor Vallese: The expectations coming into the season were dismal before Lovie Smith was hired. Then the fanbase got super excited over the change in culture that Lovie was bringing to the table, and perhaps expectations rose too quickly. I called for a 5-7 season back in August and now that may look like too positive of a prediction. The loss at home to Purdue is really what convinced even the most optimistic fans that this rebuild wasn’t going to happen overnight and that Year One under Smith was going to be a transitional and challenging one. From this point forward fans are looking for consistent and promising performances from younger players that will hopefully blossom into big keys to next year’s squad.
TDG: Freshman quarterback Jeff George, Jr. made his first career start on Saturday against Michigan. Facing the top-ranked defense in the country according to S&P+, George fared about as well as could be expected, going 4-for-15 with 95 passing yards, one touchdown, one interception, and one fumble. How much longer are Wes Lunt and Chayce Crouch expected to be out? And how do you feel about the offense moving forward if George remains under center?
TV: It is unclear if Lunt or Crouch will be available this week; Lovie likes to keep injuries under lock and key until the last possible minute. George Jr. obviously has a lot to live up to with his dad’s success under center, and his first career start wasn’t exactly a smooth one. Michigan has the top defense in the nation as you mentioned, so not a whole lot was expected of the redshirt freshman, but even so there was no rhythm to the Illinois offense and the team had no one but themselves to blame for several of their turnovers. Fans’ confidence in the offense dipped following Lunt’s injury, and last weekend probably only made it dip further if George Jr. is going to be the starting QB from this point forward.
TDG: The Illinois offense features a three-headed monster in the backfield with running backs Kendrick Foster, Reggie Corbin, and Ke'Shawn Vaughn. Corbin, in particular, is averaging more than eight yards per carry. What do each of these three running backs bring to the Fighting Illini offense? And how has the offensive coaching staff distributed carries between the three of them thus far?
TV: Corbin and Foster have both been pleasant surprises out of the backfield this season. Ke’Shawn Vaughn was the starter heading into the year but has had several poor performances and the starting gig has now been given to Foster. Foster is more of a downhill runner who trucks his way through defenders and gets the tough yards when the offense calls his number. Corbin, on the other hand, is a much more elusive back who makes his living on screen plays and outside runs. Vaughn is a combination of the two, and even saw time at quarterback last week at Michigan in some wildcat formations. The carries are distributed pretty equally amongst the three right now and [I] expect all three of these playmakers to be the cornerstones of the Illini offense.
TDG: The Fighting Illini defense is allowing 197.3 rushing yards per game and ranks 117th in the country in rushing defense according to S&P+. The Gophers are averaging 212.4 rushing yards per game and will lean on running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks to lead their offense. Who will need to step up on defense for Illinois to be able to slow the Gophers' rushing attack?
TV: The Gopher backs are definitely an area of concern for an Illinois D that is way too prone to giving up long runs. Their defensive line is great, headlined by NFL prospects Dawune Smoot, Carroll Phillips and Chunky Clements, but the secondary has been an area of concern for the Illini all season long and there have been a rotating carousel of starters at LB and free safety. Freshmen Stanley Green and Patrick Nelson, who have both been thrown right into the thick of things in Big Ten play, will definitely need to step up in the Illinois secondary if they want to try and shut down Minnesota’s potent running attack.
TDG: Illinois ranks 99th in pass defense according to S&P+, but they've only allowed seven passing touchdowns, compared to the 13 passing touchdowns that the Minnesota defense has allowed this season. On offense, the Gophers don't have a lot of explosive talent at the wide receiver position and rarely throw the ball down the field. Can you talk about how the Fighting Illini's previous opponents have exploited their secondary?
TV: The Illini haven’t had a huge problem with pass defense or deep balls. The biggest problem so far has been the huge gashes they’ve allowed to opposing running backs. As discussed above the Illinois secondary is young and at times lost, so I imagine the Gophers will want to pound the ball up the middle as opposed to taking deep shots. The problems with the team’s secondary have been as much what they’re doing wrong fundamentally (missed tackles, missed assignments, etc.) as what other teams have done to exploit it.
TDG: Illinois made a big splash in the spring when Bill Cubit was fired and replaced with former NFL head coach Lovie Smith. But there are certainly those skeptical as to whether or not Lovie can succeed in transitioning from professional to college football. Have there been growing pains so far, either on the football field or on the recruiting trail? And what are the expectations moving forward for Lovie's Fighting Illini?
TV: Fans were extremely excited when the Lovie hire was announced. Illinois went from football hell to being led by a former NFL head coach who’s taken a team to the Super Bowl. There are some growing pains that have been quite obvious on the field thus far, but most of the fan base is confident that once Smith brings in “his guys” and gets to recruit for a full calendar year the huge improvements will start to show. I personally haven’t thought that recruiting will be a huge issue for Lovie. He has a lot to boast about when he visits schools and he is a very well-respected coach throughout Illinois and the midwest. He’s also got several staff members who have been recruiting coordinators in college for years, so I don’t share the same concerns that Lovie won’t be able to connect with high school kids or recruit well. The main thing right now is just patience.
TDG: The Gophers are 4-1 in their last five games against the Fighting Illini, with that lone setback coming on the road against Illinois in 2014. Will Illinois come out on top against Minnesota on Saturday? Give us your prediction!
TV: Illinois has had their struggles against Minnesota lately. Last year’s game was close, and so was the Illini’s victory two years ago in Champaign. I expect this matchup to be close as well, especially given both teams’ struggles lately against the likes of Purdue and Rutgers. If Jeff George, Jr. is the starter for Illinois my optimism of clinching a homecoming victory goes down significantly. But because Lovie has been so quiet about Lunt’s injury and his timetable to return, it’s the biggest x-factor on this team and having him under center can change everything. Right now I think Minnesota pulls out a close win, 24-21. We’ll see what the injury report looks like later this week (if Smith provides one).
Thank you to Trevor for taking time out of his day to give us a little insight into the Fighting Illini! Safe travels to all the Gopher fans making the trip to Champaign. If you were there in 2014 when Minnesota coughed up the game on a fumble return for a touchdown, hopefully you can block that out with new happy memories after Saturday.
Also be sure to check out our Q&A over at The Champaign Room.