Coming off a bye week following their first loss of the season, the Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-1) hit the road for a matchup against the No. 24-ranked Illinois Fighting Illini (5-1), in what has suddenly became a critical game for both teams seeking pole position in the Big Ten West.
Can Illinois score on offense?
The name you need to know is Chase Brown. The former Western Michigan transfer running back is the straw that stirs the Illini’s drink on offense, rushing for 879 yards and four touchdowns. In all six games this season, Brown has rushed for at least 100 yards, and he is averaging 5.8 yards per carry. He is likely to be in contention for the Doak Walker Award, which is awarded annually to the top running back in college football. I’m sure there are some Illinois fans who believe Brown should be up for the Heisman, but Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III proved last year how difficult it is to break into that conversation as a Big Ten running back.
When he isn’t handing the ball off to Brown, quarterback Tommy DeVito is completing 68.9% of his passes and throwing more touchdowns (9) than interceptions (2). DeVito will also use his legs a fair amount, with the Illini’s second-most rushing attempts this season. He has been efficient and largely mistake-free under center for Illinois, though he was less effective through the air against Wisconsin and Iowa. DeVito went down in the first quarter of the Iowa game with an ankle injury and did not return. If he is unable to return against Minnesota, Illinois will turn to former Rutgers quarterback Artur Sitkowski, who isn’t nearly as mobile as DeVito.
This is not an explosive offense, especially in the passing game, but the Illini have talent at wide receiver, led by Isaiah Williams. He leads the team with 38 receptions, but is only averaging 7.5 yards per catch. Pat Bryant has done more with less, hauling in 18 receptions for 313 receiving yards. Brian Hightower rounds our their top trio with 22 receptions for 247 receiving yards. The three have combined for five touchdown catches through six games. But Williams did exit the second half of the Iowa game with a concussion.
Regardless of whether DeVito and Williams are healthy, this game will be won or lost in the trenches. Brown is a good running back but he has been made even better by the running lanes his offensive line has opened up for him. Minnesota has been tough against the run this season but they’ll need to be even tougher to clog traffic at the line of scrimmage and bottle up Brown.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
The Illini rank 3rd in rushing yards allowed per game, 9th in passing yards allowed per game, and 1st in scoring defense. You could say they are playing well. They haven’t even allowed a touchdown at Memorial Stadium in four home games this season.
The knock against the Illini defense is that they’ve yet to come up against a good offense. Statistically, the best offense they’ve faced up to this point belongs to the Badgers, who rank 65th nationally in total offense and are tied for 53rd in scoring. Of course, Wisconsin has played so poorly, especially on offense, that head coach Paul Chryst was ousted five games into their season. Illinois has played four other FBS programs — Wyoming, Indiana, Virginia, and Iowa — and they’ve all ranked 97th or worse in total offense and 98th or worse in scoring.
But I would caution against underestimating this Illini defense. Minnesota will bring to Champaign the most formidable offense Illinois has faced up to this point, but we saw against Purdue what happens when the Gophers aren’t able to run the ball. The Illini happen to have one of the best run defenses in the country, limiting opponents to 67.2 rushing yards per game. They rotate players on the defensive line and have a lot of beef up front to stuff the run, so Minnesota may need to get them moving laterally with Mohamed Ibrahim running outside zone.
Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters is able to sell out to stop the run in part because Illinois can trust their secondary in man-to-man coverage. Junior Devon Witherspoon, redshirt sophomore Tahveon Nicholson, and senior Jartavius Martin can all hold their own at cornerback, and senior safeties Sydney Brown and Kendall Smith provide a veteran presence in the defensive backfield. Smith leads the team with three interceptions through their first six games.
If the Gophers’ wide receivers are able to create separation against the Illini’s secondary, the Minnesota offensive line work have their work cut out for them protecting quarterback Tanner Morgan. Illinois is tied for 12th in the country in sacks per game, led by defensive end Keith Randolph Jr., who has a team-high four sacks. Walters won’t hesitate to dial up blitzes, either.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
The biggest advantage the Gophers have coming into this game is that they are coming off a loss that exposed their vulnerabilities on offense and they’ll have had two weeks to self-scout and clean up those issues. Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, in particular, has made the most of his bye weeks at Minnesota, averaging 30 points per game when coming off a bye. I can’t imagine scheming against this Illini defense is easy, but I’m going to bet on Kirk finding a way with a healthy Mohamed Ibrahim back to give his offense the engine it needs. Illinois crashed the party last year once Minnesota became ranked. It only seems fair that the Gophers march into Memorial Stadium and return the favor. Minnesota 17, Illinois 9.