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Scouting Report: Illinois Fighting Illini at Minnesota Golden Gophers

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“I have to laugh cause I've outsmarted even myself. My foe, is an animal. In order to conquer the animal, I have to think like an animal. And, whenever possible, look like one.”

NCAA Football: Illinois at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

After a frustrating loss to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in Champaign last weekend, the Fighting Illini travel north to Minneapolis to face the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Head Coach Lovie Smith and his Illinois squad look to compete with the only other 0-3 team in the Big Ten this season, and we’re here to preview the opposition for you:


Last Meeting/Matchup History

Minnesota trounced Illinois 40-17 last season in Champaign. The last game played in Minneapolis between both teams saw the Gophers win 32-23 in 2015. Minnesota leads the all-time series 37-29-3, and has won 5 of the last 6 against the Illini.

Offense

Rushing

Minnesota runs the football a lot. So much so, that they produce the 15th highest run play percentage in college football (64.44% of plays called are runs). Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith share the rushing duties for the Gophers, with Smith being the main back and Brooks being the power back. Rodney Smith generally gets the ball 2 times per every 4 down set. He’s producing 4.1 yards per carry in the month of October, and leads the team in overall carries. His teammate Shannon Brooks is the second of the 1-2 punch Minnesota throws in the backfield. Primarily the shorter yardage/scoring back, Brooks shines when Minnesota get into the red-zone. He has a team-high 5 touchdown runs this season, and averages 5.1 yards per carry this month.

Passing (Minnesota has a passing offense?)

Yes. Minnesota has a passing offense-ish kinda (it’s there but it’s not REALLY there). Conor Rhoda throws the ball occasionally (35.56% of the time, 115th in the NCAA) to Tyler Johnson (32.5% of the time actually) who generally catches it mostly sometimes (61% catch rate) thus establishing what one could label as a “passing offense.” Rhoda does a decent job of not getting sacked thanks to the Gophers’ offensive line (2.08% sack rate is 8th best in college football), but he still manages to turn the ball over from time to time (3.55% of the time, 91st in the NCAA).

We’re saying that Minnesota is not made to go the length of the field in a quick amount of time. They will run the ball A LOT in order to control the clock. This does not produce a whole lot of points per game (27.8 ppg average), but this will whittle away opposing defenses like crazy.

Defense

THIS is where Minnesota dominates. Seriously, the Gophers have the 25th best overall defense according to the S&P ratings. What helps create such a dominant defense is the ability to avoid the big play. Minnesota’s defense only surrenders an average of 186.8 yards per game, with their S&P passing yardage per game (passing yardage outside of garbage time) standing a 127.2 yards per game (12th best in the NCAA). This is largely due to the quality of play at the linebacker position, as Thomas Barber and Jonathan Celestin lead the Gopher defense in total tackles and combined tackles for loss. Coach Robb Smith has done well to use his linebackers in both the run and pass defense, as the corps accounts for 65% of their tackles for losses, 72% of run stuffs, and 55% of sacks. If Minnesota’s linebackers are able to dominate the point of attack, this will be a long game for the Illini.

What We’re Worried About

Illinois can’t stop teams on third down. They’re currently 125th of 129 in opponent’s third down conversion percentage (50.57% *not a typo), and have struggled to stop guys in the backfield. Speaking of stopping the run, the Illini have allowed an average of 197.2 yards per game on the ground this year. Expect Minnesota to utilize their ground game and run the ball. Let’s set the over/under on total carries at 47.5.

Why Illinois will win cover the spread

Minnesota’s D-line has been...shaky. Even though road games have not been kind to Illinois this season (average road loss margin is 26.5), the Illini are starting to use Ra’Von Bonner and Mike Epstein more outside the tackles. As long as SOMEONE blocks the Minnesota linebackers, the Illini should have a decent amount of success running the football on Saturday afternoon. More running plays means less chances of throwing (Illinois has the 3rd highest interception percentage), which should generate a few big play opportunities if the Gopher linebackers stay in the box. Also, keep in mind that Minnesota is not designed to score quickly or often (27.8 ppg). With the line currently at 13.5, look for this contest to end in a one-two possession game. We’ll take 27-14 Gophers (it covers!).