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Minnesota Football: RoWINg to Illinois - Opponent Preview

Can the Gophers break Bret Bielema’s spell?

Wisconsin v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The Minnesota Golden Gophers (5-3) look to hold their spot atop the Big Ten West with a win over the Illinois Fighting Illini (3-5) at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium.

Can Illinois score on offense?

As quarterback Luke Altmyer goes, so goes the Fighting Illini offense. With running back Chase Brown no longer around to serve as the engine for their offense, the Ole Miss transfer has had to shoulder that responsibility, with mixed results. It has been an up-and-down season for the first-year starter, encapsulated by a two-week stretch in which Altmyer went from throwing four interceptions in a loss to Penn State to passing for more than 300 yards in a win over Florida Atlantic. He has made his fair share of mistakes, but he has also flashed the promise he showed as a former four-star prospect, completing 63.2 percent of his passes and throwing for 1,671 passing yards and 10 touchdowns (albeit, to go along with nine interceptions).

What makes Altmyer dangerous are his legs. He can extend plays by escaping the pocket and is not afraid to tuck it and run, as he is currently second on the team in rushing yards (301) and leads the team in rushing touchdowns (3). You saw last week how the Minnesota defense struggled in the fourth quarter when Michigan State made the decision to insert true freshman quarterback Sam Leavitt, who was much more of a running threat than his predecessor.

The Gophers will also have their work cut out for them against this Fighting Illini wide receiver corps. Isaiah Williams leads the team with 46 receptions for 562 receiving yards, but Pat Bryant is a problem in coverage, as Illinois has made effective use of his 6’3” frame against size-disadvantaged defensive backs. He leads the team with five receiving touchdowns.

Unlike last year, the Fighting Illini don’t have a workhorse at running back. They lost redshirt sophomore Josh McCray for the year to a season-ending neck injury against Purdue. Redshirt junior Reggie Love III was their leading rusher before missing time with an ankle injury. He returned against Nebraska but has missed their last two games with an apparent lower body injury. If Love is out Saturday, expect true freshman Kaden Feagin to carry the load. He has 67 carries for 329 rushing yards and two touchdowns this season.

Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score

Gone is the elite Illinois defense from a season ago. The Fighting Illini saw three members of their secondary taken in the NFL Draft earlier this year and their pass defense has not been the same, allowing an average of 235 passing yards per game. But perhaps the most alarming statistic is the 161 rushing yards Illinois is allowing per game this season, even with NFL talents Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph Jr. anchoring their defensive line.

The Fighting Illini will actually be without Newton in the first half against Minnesota after he was assessed a targeting penalty in the second half of their last game. Randolph has missed their last two games due to injury but could be back after a bye week last week.

Behind the defensive line, Illinois lacks playmakers at the linebacker position aside from leading tackler Dylan Rosiek, who has 51 total tackles and three forced fumbles this season. Free safety Miles Scott is their second-leading tackler and safety Nicario Harper and nickel back Xavier Scott are not far behind him. It’s rarely a good sign when three of your top four tacklers are defensive backs. Scott has a team-high seven pass break-ups and two interceptions.

This is not the stingy defense of last year, so the Gopher offense should have room to operate on Saturday — as long as they can get out of their own way, of course.

But who will score more points on Saturday?

This Illinois team is difficult to pin down. After a demoralizing loss to Nebraska, they bounced back on the road to stun Maryland with a game-winning field goal as time expired and had Wisconsin on the ropes until blowing a 21-7 lead in the fourth quarter. Which team can the Gophers expect coming out of their bye week? Then there is the fact Bret Bielema has a perfect 9-0 record against Minnesota in his career, including back-to-back wins with the Fighting Illini the last two years. Weeks after snapping a losing streak against Kirk Ferentz, can P.J. Fleck do the same against Bielema? I’m not convinced... but I’m optimistic. Minnesota 20, Illinois 14.