The Minnesota Golden Gophers (0-2) travel to Champaign this weekend for a matchup with the Illinois Fighting Illini (0-2). Which team will notch their first Big Ten win of 2020? Probably the team that scores more points than the other, but let’s dive in.
What is the COVID situation in Champaign?
The Illini were without a total of 14 players against Purdue in Week 2:
Starters unavailable: QB Brandon Peters, C Doug Kramer, and K James McCourt
Participated Week 1 but unavailable Week 2: QB Isaiah Williams, WR Kerby Joseph, OL Jordyn Slaughter, DL Keith Randolph, LB Shammond Cooper, and DB Christian Bobak
Did not participate Week 1 and unavailable Week 2: WR Trevon Sidney, TE Griffin Moore, OL Brevyn Jones, OL Moses Okpala, and DB Michael Marchese
Peters and Moore tested positive for COVID on the Thursday prior to the game and will not be available for a minimum of 21 days dating back to that positive test. It was reported but not confirmed that six others were ruled out due to contact tracing, and the rest were injuries. Head coach Love Smith said on Monday morning that all the players who were sidelined in Week 2 are also expected to be unavailable for the Minnesota game.
How have the Illini fared so far this season?
Illinois lost the season opener, 45-7, to Wisconsin, before rallying late against Purdue in Week 2 but coming up short in a 31-24 loss to start the season with an 0-2 record.
Can Illinois score on offense?
Yes. Absolutely. The only question is how much will they score on offense.
The Illini will be without starting quarterback Brandon Peters, and could also be without true freshman signal caller Isaiah Williams, who saw snaps in the opener as a change-of-pace sub in place of Peters. It sounds like redshirt sophomore Matt Robinson is questionable at best for Saturday after being forced out of the Purdue game due to injury. That leaves Coran Taylor, who finished 17-of-29 for 273 passing yards with two touchdowns against the Boilermakers. He has the legs to avoid pressure and can make throws on the run. But the redshirt sophomore quarterback also had four turnovers, including two interceptions and two fumbles.
Junior wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe is the Illini’s top target in the passing game, and while defenses have been preoccupied with bracketing him in coverage, junior wide receiver Brian Hightower has taken advantage. He has five receptions for a team-high 123 receiving yards and one receiving touchdown. The Illini’s up-tempo offense has featured a more robust rushing attack in recent years, but with improved depth at wide receiver, they have been airing it out more. Look for Illinois to also make frequent use of their tight ends in the passing game.
On the ground, Illinois has struggled to gain traction for the most part. Junior running back Mike Epstein is their leading rusher with 21 carries for 99 rushing yards and one touchdown, but Western Michigan transfer Chase Brown had a breakout game against the Boilermakers. He rushed for 73 yards on 11 carries, averaging 6.6 yards per carry.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan and future NFL wide receiver Rashod Bateman have had a quiet start to the season but that could change against an Illinois defense that has been getting torched through the air. Head coach Lovie Smith is famous for his love of Tampa 2, but the Illini have been playing more man coverage of late and they have been getting burned. All-Big Ten cornerback Nate Hobbs, in particular, struggled against Purdue, matched up against the formidable David Bell. The Boilermakers also exploited soft spots when the Illini switched to zone coverage. And these struggles are in spite of returning three starters, adding in Miami transfer safety Derrick Smith, and bringing back a healthy Marquez Beason.
Up front on the defensive line, Illinois is solid. Senior defensive tackle and South Carolina State transfer Roderick Perry was an FCS Preseason All-American, and freshman defensive tackle Johnny Newton showed impressive strength and athleticism when he stepped in for injured starter Jamal Woods in the Purdue game. On the edge, senior defensive end Owen Carney was a terror against the Boilermakers, racking up three sacks. Isaiah Gay is another senior defensive end who has emerged as a disruptive pass rusher for the Illini.
The name to watch at linebacker is Jake Hansen. He is their field general. He was knocked out of the Wisconsin game, but returned to lead the Illini in tackles (14) against Purdue. Linebackers Milo Eifler and Khalan Tolson are also returning starters from last season.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
If you’re feeling confident because the Illini are expected to have more than a dozen players sidelined, a word of advice: Don’t. You’ve watched Minnesota’s defense the last two weeks. If you can put 11 living and breathing offensive players on the field, your chances of scoring against the Gophers are pretty good. And no miracle fix is walking into the football facility between now and Saturday. Could the Gophers’ defensive ends figure out how to set the edge? Possibly. Could Minnesota’s linebackers figure out how to plug gaps and not run straight into a pile of blockers? Possibly. Could the Gophers’ safeties stop taking the worst possible angles to the ball? Possibly. But that seems like a lot to ask at the moment. Illinois 42, Minnesota 38.