Season Record: 2-4
Head Coach: Lovie Smith (5-13, 2nd year at Illinois)
2017 S&P+ Overall Ranking: 107th
2016 S&P+ Overall Ranking: 95th
The Illinois Fighting Illini have seen better days. Head coach Lovie Smith’s crew squeaked out season-opening victories against Ball State and Western Kentucky before dropping four straight to South Florida, Nebraska, Iowa, and Rutgers. Yes, the same Rutgers program that hadn’t won a Big Ten game since Oct. 17, 2015. Yikes.
Junior quarterback Chayce Crouch was benched after the first four games of the season — he threw four interceptions and one touchdown over that stretch — in favor of sophomore Jeff George, Jr. But George hasn’t fared much better. In two games thus far, George has attempted an astronomical 83 passes, piled up a total of 554 passing yards, and thrown five interceptions and two touchdowns. Freshman quarterback Cam Thomas is believed to be in the mix, but he hasn’t seen the field, in part due to being suspended for a violation of team rules.
George has a trio of talented wide receivers at his disposal. The standout so far has been freshman Ricky Smalling, who had a breakout game against Rutgers with 5 receptions for 111 receiving yards and 1 touchdown. You’ll recognize the names Mike Dudek (21 receptions, 229 receiving yards, 1 touchdown) and Malik Turner (19 receptions, 180 receiving yards), a junior and a senior, respectively, who feel like they’ve been at Illinois for much longer than a couple years. Freshman tight end Louis Dorsey is also a threat in the passing game, with 11 receptions, 189 receiving yards, and 1 touchdown on the year.
Starting freshman running back Mike Epstein has been lost for the season with an undisclosed lower body injury. So the Illini will look to another freshman back, Ra’Von Bonner, to carry the load. Bonner has 49 carries, 145 rushing yards, and 3 touchdowns on the season, but didn’t see all that much action over the first four games. His playing time increased against Iowa and Rutgers, with a combined 31 carries, 109 rushing yards, and 2 touchdowns.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, the Fighting Illini are heavy on youth, and that is even more apparent on the offensive line. They have four true or redshirt freshman starters. The lone upperclassman is redshirt junior right guard Nick Allegretti. Returning starters Gabe Megginson, a sophomore, and Christian DiLauro, a senior, have even been pushed to the bench in favor of the youth movement. Surprisingly, the shift has been somewhat effective. They only allowed two sacks against Iowa and Rutgers after allowing five against Nebraska, and paved the way for a 200-yard rushing effort against the Hawkeyes.
Verdict: The loss of Epstein hurts the Fighting Illini, because the Gopher defense has struggled against the run. Bonner is no Ty Matthews or L.J. Scott, but the Gophers will need to bottle him up put the pressure on George. Despite being short-handed, Minnesota’s secondary has held up well in recent weeks and they’ll need that continue if Illinois plans to air it out. The Gophers have been opportunistic on defense, so if George continues to throw the ball to the other team, it’ll spell bad news for the Fighting Illini.
Good news for Gopher runnings back Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, who have been bottled up for the most part this season: The Fighting Illini defense is allowing 197.2 rushing yards per game, which ranks 101st nationally.
The Illinois defensive front is loaded with freshmen and sophomores. JUCO linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips is the leader of the pack, with a team-leading 45 tackles, two tackles for loss, and one sack. He and fellow linebacker Tre Watson (40 tackles, two tackles for loss, one interception) are two of only four upperclassman on the starting defense. But Phillips and Watson both suffered injuries against Rutgers, so their status for Saturday is uncertain.
Freshman defensive end Bobby Roundtree has outperformed two sophomores and a senior on the Fighting Illini’s defensive line. He has 24 tackles and three tackles for loss — all of them sacks — on the season. But this defensive front has also struggled to contain opposing quarterbacks, allowing them to escape the pocket and extend plays. That bodes well for Minnesota if Demry Croft is indeed the starting quarterback on Saturday.
Opposing teams aren’t just relying on their rushing attacks against Illinois, either. The Fighting Illini are also allowing 224 passing yards per game. There are two true freshman in the starting secondary, but freshman cornerback Nate Hobbs has acquitted himself well so far. Hobbs is fourth on the team in tackles with 30 total, including two tackles for loss and one sack. Redshirt sophomore safety Patrick Nelson is another standout, with 32 tackles, one tackle for loss, two pass break-ups, and two forced fumbles. Just two members of the secondary have an interception on the season, so this isn’t exactly a ball-hawking unit.
Verdict: If both Phillips and Watson are out, the Gophers’ running backs will feast. Even if those two are on the field, I feel good about the chances of Smith and/or Brooks being able to find running room against the Illini’s porous rushing defense. Their poor track record this season against mobile quarterbacks also works in favor of the Gophers now that Croft seems to have seized the starting spot. It’s not exactly an intimidating secondary either, so it’ll be interesting to see how Croft and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca attack Illinois through the air.
Prediction: Minnesota 35, Illinois 21. P.J. Fleck gets his first Big Ten win as head coach at Minnesota. On paper, this seems like a mismatch for Illinois. Without their starting running back, I don’t see them being able to take advantage of the Gophers’ vulnerable defensive front, and I’m not sure they’ll be able to stretch the field in the passing game. But for the Minnesota offense, their running backs should be looking to run wild against this Fighting Illini defense. I also think the matchup works in the favor of quarterback Demry Croft, who saw significant success late in the game last week against a much tougher defense.