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Trip to Minnesota will be tough for Illinois in PJ Fleck’s first year

The Illini head north to Minneapolis on Oct. 21

National Funding Holiday Bowl - Minnesota v Washington State Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Illinois will be making the long trip up north to Minneapolis to play the Gophers on Oct. 21st. Every conference road game is tough, but playing Minnesota can be a unique challenge.

The Gophers went 9-4 last season under Tracy Claeys, who was starting to make big strides with the program. That all ended after he was fired. Claeys was dismissed after a season-long sexual assault scandal and subsequent Title IX investigation, which led to the team boycotting all team activities. Claeys expressed support for his players decision, which led to his ultimate demise as the Head Coach of Minnesota.

Despite this, Minnesota may still be on the rise with the hiring of the most energetic coach in college football, PJ Fleck. Fleck led Western Michigan to a 13-1 record – which included a win over Illinois -- and a berth in the Cotton Bowl in his fourth season in charge. He will be bringing his “Row the Boat” philosophy and his dynamic, innovative offense to the Big Ten.

The offense for Minnesota will utilize a fast-paced tempo and will be based on the running game. Junior running backs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith will be difficult for the inexperienced Illinois defensive front to handle.

The good news for the Illini in this game is the lack of experience for Minnesota at QB. Senior Connor Rhoda has only completed eight passes for the Gophers. If Rhoda doesn’t start, sophomore Demry Croft will likely be taking the snaps.

For Illinois to have a shot in the game, they will have to slow down the Minnesota rushing attack and make the offense depend on the QBs. The Illini will likely need a couple of takeaways on defense to help turn the tide, as the Illinois offense may be in for a tough day against an aggressive defensive front for Minnesota led by DT Steven Richardson.

It will be an uphill battle for the Illini, but if they can find a way to stop the two-headed rushing attack of Brooks and Smith, and combine that with a few lucky breaks, Illinois may be able to steal one from their division rivals.