It’s Homecoming and the Illinois Fighting Illini are coming to town.
What can the Minnesota Golden Gophers and their fans expect?
Let’s take a gander, shall we.
Are they any good this year?
2019 Record: 2-2 (0-1, T-5th B1G West)
It’s early, but it’s not looking good for head coach Lovie Smith. The Fighting Illini started the season 2-0 with wins over Akron and Connecticut — two teams that are now a combined 1-8 — before losing to Eastern Michigan and Nebraska at home.
Against Eastern Michigan, Illinois trailed 31-17 in the fourth quarter before rallying to tie the game with 1:44 left in regulation. But the Eagles were able to convert a game-winning 24-yard field goal in the final seconds of the game. The Illini experienced a different sort of heartbreak against the Cornhuskers a week later, jumping out to a 14-0 lead and never trailing until Nebraska took a 42-38 lead with eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
Smith, in his fourth year at the helm, is now 11-29 at Illinois and has only two conference road wins to his name. Both have come against Rutgers.
Can they score on offense?
Well, senior running back Reggie Corbin can.
Here is a reminder of what can happen when you let Corbin run wild, as the Gophers did last year as part of then defensive coordinator Robb Smith’s swan song at Minnesota:
Not great. And don’t worry, there is more:
You don’t have to be a defensive coordinator to diagnose the problem. Minnesota’s defenders were out of position almost as soon as the ball was snapped. The linebackers, in particular, looked lost for most of the game, making poor reads and even worse decisions. The secondary, frequently 10 to 15 yards off the line of scrimmage, were of little to no help in run support. Once Joe Rossi took over for Smith, he opted for more man coverage, lining up his defensive backs closer to the line of scrimmage. This reduced the amount of responsibility for the linebackers and allowed them to spend less time thinking and more time reacting, if that makes sense.
Rossi would be wise to dial up more of the same against this year’s Illinois team, because Corbin is no less dangerous. He had monster games in both of the Illini’s losses, rushing for 278 combined yards and averaging 7.3 yards per carry.
Whereas Corbin would not be denied even when the scoreboard did not favor Illinois, the same cannot be said of quarterback Brandon Peters. The Michigan transfer started the season off strong before looking out of sorts against Eastern Michigan and then having a miserable game against Nebraska. Peters has struggled with accuracy and there have been miscommunications with his receivers at times. And the Illini do have weapons at wide receiver. Junior Ricky Smalling is their most consistent contributor, with 21 receptions for 200 yards. Josh Imatorbhebhe has come on strong, hauling in at least one touchdown in each of their last three games.
If the Gopher defense can at least contain Corbin and force Peters to beat them through the air, I think they’ll be in good shape against the Illini.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
The Illinois secondary is ripe for the pickin’. First, the Illini lost freshman cornerback Marqeuz Beason, who was expected to be a key contributor, to season-ending knee surgery back in August. That was a huge blow to a group that was already thin on depth and has only been more banged up in the weeks since, with both starting safeties getting injured. Junior cornerback Nate Hobbs is solid in coverage, but he can’t do it alone. The Illinois defense has been gashed through the air, ranking 102nd in the country in passing yards allowed per game (261.8).
The Fighting Illini’s defensive line is solid though, and will attempt to prevent Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan from picking apart their teammates in the secondary. USC transfer defensive end Oluwole Betiku Jr. will lead the charge, as he leads the rest of the defensive line with 21 total tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks, and two fumble recoveries. He very well could be one of the best pass rushers in the Big Ten, if not the country. But Betiku could be operating without the support of starting defensive tackle Jamal Woods and reserve tackle Kenyon Jackson, both of whom are banged up with unspecified injuries.
That may put more pressure on linebackers Dele Harding and Jake Hansen against the run. Illinois leans heavily on that pair to stop opposing rushing attacks. They’ve had some success, but were particularly vulnerable to quarterback option plays against Eastern Michigan and Nebraska. Tanner Morgan isn’t that kind of quarterback for Minnesota, so the Illini can breathe a sigh of relief in that regard. But the Cornhuskers, in particular, also had great success running between the tackles as well, utilizing an inside trap play. It will be interesting to see what Minnesota offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca dials up, since he leaned on more outside zone runs against Purdue. Illinois focused on setting the edge against Nebraska, to limit the effectiveness of their pin-pull sweeps, but came undone when the Huskers shifted inside.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
The recipe for success here seems enough simple on paper: Contain Reggie Corbin on defense and take advantage of Illini’s porous secondary on offense. If the Gophers can do both of those things, I wouldn’t expect this to be a very close game. But unfortunately too-close-for-comfort has been this team’s M.O. for the first four games, and I don’t know that I’m confident that that will change now, even against Illinois. With that said, the Gophers come out on top and remain undefeated, improving to 5-0. Minnesota 35, Illinois 24.