Ahead of Saturday’s matchup between the Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-1) and the No. 24-ranked Illinois Fighting Illini (5-1), we were able to connect with Drew Pastorek, a managing editor of The Champaign Room, and he was kind enough to field our questions.
The Daily Gopher: Illinois is home to the nation’s leading rusher, Chase Brown, who has rushed for 100+ yards in every game this season. He showed flashes of his ability last year, but something seems to have clicked this season to allow him to tap into his full potential. What makes him such an elite running back?
Drew Pastorek: To me, more than anything else, it’s his vision and toughness that stand out. Brown doesn’t have lights-out speed but he sees the field incredibly well and anticipates running lanes. He improved his body in the offseason, and that added strength has enabled him to be ridiculously difficult to bring down — in addition to leading the country in rushing yards, he’s also leading FBS in yards after contact. His explosiveness makes him likely to break any run for a big gain at any moment.
TDG: Former Syracuse transfer quarterback Tommy DeVito has been solid under center for the Illini. How does Illinois’s passing game complement their ground game, and what kind of impact will it have if DeVito is unavailable against Minnesota due to his ankle injury?
DP: The Illini have had a much more balanced attack this year thanks to DeVito. He’s been in firm command of the offense and recovers quickly from mistakes. DeVito has done a terrific job of spreading the ball around to multiple receivers — while still completing 69% of his passes — and making plays with his legs to extend drives. Unfortunately, that improvisation also led to him getting injured against the Hawkeyes. The offense clearly suffered without him. Chase Brown is still Chase Brown, and the offensive line has been outstanding, but it’s gonna be difficult for the Illini if Minnesota doesn’t respect the passing game.
TDG: Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters has turned a lot of heads this season leading one of the top defenses in the country. What are the characteristics of this Illini defense that make it so difficult for opposing offenses to sustain scoring drives?
DP: For starters, Illinois puts A LOT of pressure on the QB. “The Law Firm” of Johnny Newton & Keith Randolph anchors the defensive line. Newton leads the nation in hurries and Randolph has notched a sack in four straight games. Linebackers Seth Coleman and Tarique Barnes each had monster games against Iowa. The Illini, to put it plainly, have dudes all over the field. There’s no real positional weaknesses and they flock towards the football. They’re a very sound tackling team and don’t miss a lot of assignments. Certainly a far cry from the Lovie Smith days, where (many of the same) players would often have no idea where to even line up.
TDG: If Minnesota is to be successful on offense against this defense, how will they need to attack it? Are there any vulnerabilities?
DP: The Illini are first in FBS in scoring defense and pass efficiency defense, second in total defense, and third in rushing defense. It definitely won’t be easy for the Gophers to move the ball, but I’d say their best chance for success would be working quick throws over the middle. Indiana and Iowa were able to move the ball with a lot of intermediate passing routes. Testing the Illini deep has not worked out well, as Illinois is also tenth nationally in interceptions. But that Ibrahim fella is pretty good, so you may want to give him the ball. He’s the best running back Illinois will have faced this season.
TDG: In only his second season in Champaign, Bret Bielema has the Illini in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten West. What have been the keys to his turnaround?
DP: Coach Bielema stepped into his role and immediately got to work establishing Illinois’ identity and finding players and coaches that fit it. His mantra has been “tough, smart, dependable” and the Illini have embraced that philosophy. I wasn’t initially a fan of the hire, but he’s completely swayed me in less than two years. Bielema knows how to succeed and build a winning Big Ten football team, and this year’s Fighting Illini are on track to be one his biggest success stories to date.
TDG: What is your prediction for the game?
DP: Even though the Illini defense has been elite, I think the outcome of the game hinges on who’s lining up at QB Saturday. It looks like Art Sitkowski will be starting, which makes me very uneasy. He looked very shaky for much of the Iowa game, throwing an awful interception at the goal line and almost cost Illinois the game with a lost fumble in the final minutes (the officials correctly ruled that his forearm was down before losing the ball). The offense just doesn’t execute things as well with Sitkowski. If he’s starting, I’d lean towards Minnesota. Gophers 17, Illini 10.