Can Minnesota Get Back on Track Versus Illinois?

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Can Minnesota Get Back On Track Versus Illinois?
October 14, 2017. Conor Rhoda of the Minnesota Golden Gophers hands the ball to teammate Rodney Smith against the Michigan State Spartans during the first quarter of the game at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

It’s been a rough stretch for the Gophers. A promising start to the season led to what’s now a three-game losing streak. To add insult to injury, most people had predicted a 5-0 or 6-0 start for the team. In fairness, both Maryland and Purdue are much better teams than most people expected. Regardless, this weekend might be the Gophers’ best chance to stop the skid. Can Minnesota get back on track versus Illinois?

What the Offense Needs To Do

Three words: run. the. ball. Illinois has allowed opponents 1,183 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground this season. This plays right into Minnesota’s hands. The fact that coach P.J. Fleck pulled the trigger on the quarterback change last week gives the team yet another option in the ground game. Demry Croft is noticeably more mobile than Conor Rhoda. Between Croft, Shannon Brooks, and Rodney Smith, there’s potential for a big day on offense.

When Croft throws the ball, I’d highly suggest going to Tyler Johnson. Johnson had three touchdowns against Michigan State, including two in the fourth quarter to bring the team within a field goal of tying it up. He’s emerged as the true number one receiver. Illinois is 94th in the country in total defense, so Johnson should be able to get open for at least a few catches, but plenty of other guys have emerged as reliable second and third options.

The other thing the offense needs to do is hang onto the ball. They were lucky to recover two of their four fumbles last week (and yes, I realize the weather was atrocious and played a role).

What the Defense Needs to Do

Minnesota is still the 26th-ranked total defense in the nation, and Illinois has been anemic on offense. Jeff George Jr. and Chayce Crouch have combined to throw four touchdowns and 11 interceptions for the Illini this season. Leading rusher Mike Epstein has 346 yards; Minnesota’s Rodney Smith, splitting carries with Shannon Brooks, has 442. As a whole, the Illini offense ranks 117th. On paper, at least, this is a mismatch.

As long as the defense doesn’t get cocky, this should be a dominating game performance from them. With any luck, it will let them rebuild some confidence after a few less-than-stellar games and give them something to build on down the stretch.

So… Can Minnesota Get Back on Track Versus Illinois?

Barring something crazy happening, yes. They’d better take advantage of this game to do so, too. They need a .500 record from this point on to become bowl-eligible, and the toughest part of the schedule is yet to come.

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