Illinois (2-4, 0-3) heads up to the Twin Cities to face the Minnesota Golden Gophers (3-3, 0-3). Both teams are still looking for their first conference win on the season. Minnesota started off the year 3-0 before a couple of disappointing losses to Maryland and Purdue. They will be looking to get back on track at home this week against the Illini.
To help us preview the Illinois vs Minnesota football matchup, we asked GoAUpher — who is one of the site managers for SB Nation’s Golden Gopher blog, The Daily Gopher — some questions to help teach us more about those rodents from the north.
1. Demry Croft looks like he will be the new starting QB for Minnesota (though Head Coach PJ Fleck hasn't committed publicly yet). What does he bring to the table for Minnesota that Conor Ronda doesn't?
GoAUpher - In a word, athleticism. Demry's ceiling has always been higher, which is why prior to his suspension the consensus among the TDG staff was that we all wanted him to step up and seize the starting role. After the setback of violating team rules, he seems to be ready to do that. He is a more capable runner, though it remains to be seen how much he'll be asked to do on the ground. He's also able to create with his feet by stepping up in the pocket, something Conor Rhoda refused to do on a regular basis. Croft has also did a nice job working his way through his progressions/reads against Michigan State which was something else that Rhoda struggled with.
2. WR Tyler Johnson had a fantastic game against Michigan State with 3 receiving TDs. Was that his breakout game, and what do you think can be expected from him going forward?
GoAUpher - We're all expecting more of the same. TJ is the #1 receiving threat for Minnesota and this isn't the only game he's proved it. If the QB throwing to him is able to deliver, Johnson is more than capable of running the routes required to have big games every single week.
3. How is rowing the boat going?
GoAUpher - It's going ELITE.
More seriously, and slightly less Fleck-ism'd...it's been on the lower end of what Minnesota fans were hoping for. Too many Gophers fans let 9 wins set out of touch expectations for Year 1 under Fleck, but even the more reserved fans (like me) can't help but be a little frustrated that the Gophers lost to Maryland and Purdue in games they lead during the final minutes. This season has been a pretty perfect storm of injuries, new culture adjustment (see: multiple suspended starters who kept violating team rules), and new schemes on offense and defense. Put them all together and you've got a team that could be 5-1 (or even 6-0) but is instead 3-3 and 0-3 in the Big Ten.
Ultimately though, Fleck wasn't hired to win big in Year 1 and I think Minnesota fans are starting to acclimate themselves to that fact. Ideally we'd still make a bowl game but more realistically 4-8 or 5-7 seems most likely.
4. Minnesota is in the middle of the conference in rushing offense and only gaining 3.9 yards per carry. Before the year started I thought running would be the Gophers main strength with Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, but that hasn't exactly been the case. Where do these struggles come from?
GoAUpher - Offensive line, offensive line, and offensive line. The line has struggled to create holes or generate push for the backs all season long. These issues have been made worse by a number of key injuries to the offense line. An additional issue for Minnesota has been the limitations placed on the run game by Conor Rhoda, who was not capable (athletically or perhaps, execution wise) of fully running read option looks in Fleck's RPO offense. The return of Demry Croft will hopefully improve things slightly in this regard, but ultimately I don't expect the run game to improve dramatically through the rest of the year.
5. What other players should Illinois fan be aware of going into this game?
GoAUpher - Keep an eye on Brandon Lingen and Nate Wozniak, as both tight ends have seen more looks in the passing game as the Gophers' WR depth has taken a hit due to injuries. On defense, watch for Carter Coughlin playing a versatile role in the hybrid rush defensive end position he's taken on this season. Also watch for linebackers Kamal Martin, Jonathon Celestin, and Thomas Barber to make plays. Safety Duke McGhee has also returned from his multiple game suspension and with fellow safety Antoine Winfield Jr (arguably Minnesota's best defender) still out he should play a more important role.
6. Minnesota started 3-0, but has lost their first 3 Big Ten games. Will this team bounce back and make a bowl game?
GoAUpher - Realistically? No. The only game I'm confident thinking of as a win is this weekend against Illinois. Beyond that, Minnesota certainly has a shot against Iowa (road), Nebraska (home), and Northwestern (road) but none of those are "sure things" right now. And Michigan (road) and Wisconsin (home) would be huge upsets that you have to write off on paper. If you do, Minnesota needs Illinois plus two of Iowa/Nebby/Northwestern and that's probably too tall an ask given the depth issues this team has right now.
7. Prediction for the game.
GoAUpher -Demry Croft opens up the offense enough to give Minnesota a cushion they never relinquish and the Gophers D holds Illinois mostly in check.
Minnesota 27 - Illinois 13
Thanks again to The Daily Gopher and GoAUpher for joining us this week.