The last time Bret Bielema was on the visitors’ sideline at Huntington Bank Stadium, he was the head coach of the No. 16-ranked Wisconsin, Russell Wilson was under center for the Badgers, and Paul Bunyan’s Axe was headed back to Madison after a 42-13 blowout.
Ten years later, Bielema returns to the Twin Cities as the leader of the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Can Illinois score on offense?
The Illini want to run the football. Expect the bulk of the carries to go to former Western Michigan running back Chase Brown, who has exploded for 200+ rushing yards twice this season, once against Charlotte (257 rushing yards) and then against Penn State (223 rushing yards). But it’s often been feast or famine for Brown, as those are also the only two games in which he has eclipsed 100 rushing yards this season. The Illini will typically bring in freshman Joshua McCray and sophomore Jakari Norwood at running back to spell Brown, and all of them operate behind an offensive line that lacks depth but features three seniors among the starting five.
Former Rutgers quarterback Artur Sitkowski made his third start of the season against Penn State and broke his arm during the fourth overtime period. So the Illini will turn back to former Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters, who entered the season as the starter before giving way to Sitkowski. Peters is a sixth-year senior who has started 22 games for Illinois. He was injured in the season opener against Nebraska and returned three weeks later but was ineffective, completing less than 50% of his passes in his first four games back. He had his best start of the season last week against Rutgers, finishing 14-of-19 for 190 passing yards and two touchdowns.
Illinois’ top targets in the passing game are freshman wide receiver Isaiah Williams and junior tight end Daniel Barker. Williams has far and away been their most productive pass catcher, leading the team with 37 receptions for 372 receiving yards and two touchdowns. But Barker has been their biggest scoring threat, with a team-leading four touchdown catches.
The Gopher defense, which ranks in the Top 10 nationally in rushing yards allowed per game, should be well equipped to put the brakes on the Illini’s ground game, but they also looked sloppy at times against Northwestern, especially at defensive tackle. They’ll need to be a lot sharper against an Illinois running game that will take a foot if you give them an inch.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
Illinois has had real trouble stopping the run. The Illini rank 78th in the country in rushing defense, allowing an average of 159.4 rushing yards per game and surrendering an average of 4.18 yards per carry. After getting trampled by Wisconsin to the tune of 391 rushing yards, Illinois somehow held Penn State to 62 rushing yards before reverting back to form against Rutgers last week, giving up 230 yards on the ground. Illinois’ linebackers stepped up against the Nittany Lions but struggled against the Scarlet Knights, especially when Rutgers was running between the tackles.
The defensive line might be the strength of the defense, though. Redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Keith Randolph Jr. is having a solid season as perhaps their best run defender with 25 total tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. Edge rusher Owen Carney Jr. is their most effective pass rusher, having racked up a team-leading 5.5 sacks. Like Minnesota, Illinois likes to rotate a lot of bodies on the defensive line, so it’s a position where they feel they have depth.
I have to give the Illini defense credit for its remarkable ability to bend without breaking. They are allowing an average of 401.2 yards per game, but have only allowed an average of 23.3 points per game. That number drops down to 19.5 if you’re only looking at Big Ten play. Turnovers have certainly been a factor, as Illinois has recorded eight interceptions and recovered five fumbles. They can also play the field position game, with a net punt average of 43.75 yards that ranks in the Top 10 nationally. The Illini have struggled on offense, but their defense has had some success forcing opposing offenses to sustain long scoring drives.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
This is a dangerous Illinois team, as evidenced by their upset of Penn State. The Nittany Lions lost that game because they couldn’t sustain or finish drives on offense and failed to stop the run on defense, allowing the Illini to rush for 357 yards. Minnesota would do well to follow the blueprint laid out by Wisconsin in their 24-0 win over Illinois. The Badgers limited the Illini to 2 yards per carry, ran the ball with impunity en route to 391 rushing yards as a team, and dominated the time of possession (42:43 to 17:17). Minnesota 28, Illinois 14.