The Illini finally return to Memorial Stadium for homecoming after two straight weeks on the away from home. The road trip was a mixed bag, as Illinois picked up a solid win at Rutgers but followed that up with a blowout loss to Michigan. The orange and blue will welcome the Minnesota Golden Gophers (5-2) to town as they celebrate the annual homecoming game and wear the Gray Ghost uniforms for the third straight year. Blake Ruane, an editor for the Minnesota SBNation blog The Daily Gopher, was kind enough to answer a few questions about the Gophers.
1. Tracy Claeys is in his first full season as the Minnesota head coach after a successful interim stint last year. Illini fans expressed extreme discontent when Bill Cubit received a two-year contract extension following his interim run in 2015. How do Gopher fans feel about Claeys’ current contract (a three-year deal) and the potential with him at the helm for Minnesota?
The Gophers are 5-2 on the season, but you wouldn't know it based on the amount of hand-wringing going on right now within the fan base. Dropping two winnable games against Penn State and Iowa did Claeys no favors, and squeaking past Rutgers with a last-second field goal felt more like a loss than a win. It's been an ugly season everywhere but the team's win-loss record. They haven't beaten a single team with a pulse, other than maybe Maryland. The offense looked much improved during the non-conference schedule, but sputtered for the most part against Big Ten competition. The defense was elite against Iowa and Maryland, but then alternately horrific against Penn State and Rutgers. The Gophers have also been uncharacteristically undisciplined as the most penalized team in the conference. It's been a bipolar season, and I think Gopher fans are split down the middle when it comes to the future of Claeys at Minnesota. Some are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, considering he is a first-year head coach, while others keep screaming "Les Miles!" like he's Beetlejuice. New athletic director Mark Coyle will have a tough decision to make at the end of the season, and I think a lot will depend on how this team finishes the year against Nebraska, Northwestern, and Wisconsin.
2. Six Minnesota players did not play against Rutgers due to restraining orders. Is discipline a problem with this team that fans are concerned about?
It's a concern for a couple different reasons. First of all, you never want to see your players dealing with legal problems off the field. It was bad enough that four of the players were suspended for three games while there was an ongoing police investigation, with the attorney's office ultimately declining to press charges. Now they're in court dealing with restraining orders stemming from the same alleged incident. I obviously can't say for sure whether the players are guilty of what they've been accused of, but chances are good that they bear at least some responsibility for their current situation. And that's unfortunate.
In addition to the character concerns, the restraining orders have also impacted the Gophers on the field. Sophomore KiAnte Hardin and redshirt freshman Ray Buford are both key players in the secondary, and the defense has struggled considerably without them on the field. This won't be a factor against Illinois -- the restraining orders are limited to home games -- but it'll be a problem the rest of this season and beyond if the orders are upheld for the next two years, as requested by the complainant. I expect all of the affected players will transfer if that is the case.
3. Mitch Leidner had a great non-conference, throwing four touchdowns and just one pick. Since Big Ten play began, however, those numbers have been reversed, as Leidner has found the end zone just once and thrown four interceptions. What’s the biggest difference with the way Leidner is playing right now and how do Gopher fans feel about their senior QB overall?
It's been a rough senior season for the veteran quarterback. He looked sharp up until the Penn State game, when a costly interception in the end zone late in the game helped keep the Nittany Lions' hopes alive. It's been downhill since then, including a concussion suffered against Iowa that forced him to sit out against Maryland. He returned to action against Rutgers and was 6-for-6 with 102 passing yards in the first quarter, before regressing and going 5-for-12 with 52 passing yards in the final three quarters. I think Mitch is an average quarterback, and a lot of Gopher fans -- myself included -- were hoping he'd take the next step in his senior year, but that has not happened. Mitch alone does not shoulder all of the blame for the Gophers' passing game woes. The offensive line has been outmatched against Big Ten competition for the most part, and the Gophers' wide receiver corps (which I'll talk about more in a minute) has left Mitch out to dry a lot with their inability to get open. Gopher fans were optimistic that new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jay Johnson would be able to help Mitch, but his early season success appears to have been somewhat of a mirage at this point.
4. The Gophers are in the top 30 in the nation in rushing yards per game. How big of a surprise has it been to receive such fantastic production from both Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks? Was this anticipated heading into the season? What do each of these backs bring to the table?
To be perfectly honest, it wasn't much of a surprise. Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks were known commodities coming into this season. Brooks missed the first two games with a broken foot, but has been solid since returning. He hasn't been the home run threat that he was as a freshman last season, but he still thrives off contact and barrels through defenders. Smith has been the workhorse all season long. Patient and elusive, Smith has added an element of toughness to his game this season and often finds yards when there are none to be had. He has also provided a spark on special teams, running back a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Rutgers. Smith and Brooks are the two most consistent players on offense for the Gophers and shutting them both down is a tall task for any defense.
5. The Gophers’ leading receiver, Drew Wolitarsky, has 450 receiving yards so far this season. That’s average but not great. Illinois’ leading wideout, Malik Turner, has just over 500, so neither of these teams can boast a consistent deep threat at WR. What has been the primary reason for Minnesota’s struggles in the passing game?
How much time do you have? Mitch Leidner and the offensive line have both been inconsistent and deserve their fare share of blame, but I would pin a lot of the issues in the passing game on an uninspiring receiving corps. Drew Wolitarsky, as you mentioned, is the team's leading receiver, but he has been MIA for much of the conference season. Few of the Gophers' receivers have been able to get separation against defensive backs in the Big Ten, and none of them possess much explosiveness after the catch. When you have two walk-ons (Brian Smith and Adam Mayer) and a true freshman (Tyler Johnson) occupying spots in the two-deep at wide receiver and your wide receivers coach has been in place for three years now, you're either not recruiting well or not developing your talent. It's a problem that I'm not sure the Gophers can solve this season, so I don't expect things to get much better, unfortunately.
6. On the other side of the ball, Minnesota ranks in the top 20 in the nation in tackles for loss. There are only two Big Ten teams ranked ahead of them, and one of them is Illinois. What does the Gophers’ defensive line bring to the table and who are the defense's best playmakers overall?
Actually, the Gophers' defensive line has been a source of much frustration for the last several years, particularly the defense's inability to pressure the quarterback without having to blitz. It's considered a Christmas miracle when Minnesota is able to get to the quarterback with a four-man rush. If defensive tackle Steven Richardson is not cleared to play Saturday after suffering a concussion, that will also be a significant blow to the Gophers' rushing defense.
The tackles for loss can be attributed to a deep linebacker corps that is all over the field, and often in the opponents' backfield. Senior linebacker Jack Lynn will miss the first half of Saturday's game due to a targeting call in the second half of the Rutgers game, so Minnesota will lean on junior linebackers Jonathan Celestin and Cody Poock in his absence, along with talented freshmen Carter Coughlin and Kamal Martin.
With KiAnte Hardin at cornerback, the secondary will be in good shape, thanks in large part to the surprising emergence of freshman defensive back Antoine Winfield, Jr. Seniors Jalen Myrick and Damarius Travis are also key members of the defensive backfield. Travis will be particularly active in stopping the run, whereas Myrick is more of a ball hawk looking for a pick six.
7. Finally, who wins on Saturday?
It'll be a close game, that much I know. The matchups between these two programs always seem to be tightly-contested battles. But I'll give the Gophers the edge here, 24-17 over the Fighting Illini. I don't expect Minnesota to do much against Illinois in the passing game, but I feel relatively confident that the running game is good enough to wear down the Illinois defense and put points on the board. The Gopher defense has proven to be a completely different unit when Hardin is back in the secondary, so I expect Minnesota to be able to limit the Illini on offense, especially if Jeff George Jr. is at quarterback. They'll emphasize shutting down the running game, which they've been able to do against better rushing attacks than the formidable backfield Illinois will use against the Gophers.
Minnesota 24, Illinois 17
Thanks again to Blake for answering our questions and be sure to head over to The Daily Gopher for some excellent Minnesota sports coverage.