We’re not quite into the thick of the Big Ten season yet, but Illinois presents a very Big Ten conundrum for the Gophers. The fan consensus is that this Illini squad is already at a crossroads, and a loss in Minneapolis could be the death knell of the 2019 season.
Minnesota is not overlooking the Illini, however. After all, the Gophers have suffered shock losses to Illinois before, and indeed, Lovie Smith’s squad ran right over the Gophers just last season.
Then again, everything is new this season, and this year’s Illinois is not last year’s Illinois. Or is it?
— Illinois opened as a two-touchdown underdog for this game, and barring a miracle, will remain an underdog in nearly every matchup on the schedule. Close losses might be enough for Smith to keep his job though.
— Quarterback Brandon Peters had a week off after consecutive losses to Eastern Michigan and Nebraska and spent his time wisely, getting some much needed rest. Saturday’s matchup against Minnesota won’t be Peters’ first. He was under center as a brand new starter for Michigan when the Gophers lost 33-10 in Ann Arbor in 2017.
— The scouting report on Peters hasn’t changed much since then. He has a good arm but he struggles with accuracy, and while he’s not known for his running skills, he’s reasonably mobile. He’s benefitted a little from the switch to shotgun, but had a sub-par game in the tough loss to Nebraska.
— On the defensive side of the ball, Illinois has been terrible. Last season, the Illini gave up nearly 40 points a game and were ranked 120th in defense. This season, with Smith taking the reins of the defense himself, they’ve been better, but only marginally, and the Illinois defense has a long way to go in the Big Ten.
And what do the Illini think of the Gophers? Well...
— Illinois is aware that Minnesota is angry about the 2018 game. As Smith noted, “this week is going to be tough for us.”
— At least one Illinois beat writer really doesn’t like PJ Fleck, and it’s for the usual “style without substance” reasons that are thrown around whenever Fleck’s name comes up. Also, he thinks the Gophers 4-0 start is as much about luck as about coaching, and in this, he may in fact have crept a little too close to Gopher fans’ insecurities about this team.
— To have a chance against Minnesota, the Illini are going to have to run the ball and sustain drives as long as possible. Against Nebraska, the offense only converted 1-of-12 third downs, meaning the defense was on the field entirely too long.
— Running back Ra’Von Bonner has plans for when his playing days are over. Bonner is a spoken word artist and writes about anxiety, depression, everyday struggles and life as a student-athlete. He hopes to capture his own struggles to help others with theirs.
— How do the Illini fans feel about this game and this team? Who knows? They’ve already moved on to basketball.