Lovie Smith has not turned the Illini around just yet. In year three under the former Chicago Bears’ head coach, Illinois is 3-5 and has beaten one Power Five team, that being Rutgers. Last week was a low point, as Maryland beat the Illini 63-33 and racked up 712 yards of total offense. Incidentally, Illini defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson resigned on Monday, citing health reasons.
Yet there have been flashes of potential. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that Penn State managed more than a seven-point lead against Illinois. Wisconsin, too, led by as little as 11 points in the third quarter. This is a game the Gophers should be able to win, but it’s the kind of games that young teams sometimes don’t win.
How Minnesota Can Beat Illinois
Stick With What’s Working Under Center
As of Tuesday, Andy Greder of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press (@AndyGreder) was reporting that Tanner Morgan is expected to start at quarterback and be backed up by the recovering Zach Annexstad. Morgan, along with the rest of the team, played very well last weekend. Had Morgan bombed, would Annexstad be back in the lineup? It’s hard to know, but there’s no sense rushing Annexstad onto the field with Morgan a more-than-competent option.
Keep Feeding Brooks, Bateman, and Johnson
It may sound like a fancy law firm, but the trio of Shannon Brooks, Rashod Bateman, and Tyler Johnson combined for three of the Gophers’ four touchdowns against Indiana. It’s great to see Brooks back on the field after a spring camp knee injury threatened to keep him out all season. In his first game action of the season, Brooks rushed for 154 yards and a touchdown. It’s hard to overestimate how much an experienced running back can help this very young offense. Johnson has clearly become the safety blanket for both freshman quarterbacks. Bateman has improved every week and had his first career 100-yard game against the Hoosiers. He could easily have his second against the Illini’s 127th-ranked defense.
Turn the Front Seven Loose
The secondary is hurting from the losses of Antoine Winfield and Antonio Shenault– although guys like Coney Durr and Jacob Huff have performed admirably in their absence. With the possible exceptions of the Maryland and Nebraska games (in which nobody played very well), the big guys up front have been stout. Ohio State and Iowa managed just 92 and 106 yards rushing, respectively. The Gophers also sacked Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins three times. Defensive lineman Carter Coughlin is tied for fifth in the nation with nine sacks.
In short, this is a winnable game for the Gophers. It’s important, however, that they not look past this game to the three more challenging ones ahead. That’s always a concern with such a young group. A win in Champaign would give the team a fifth win and a long shot to play in a bowl game, even with a 0-3 finish.