The Illinois Fighting Illini’s best shot for a victory the rest of this season comes this weekend when they take on Big Ten West opponent Minnesota Golden Gophers. Minnesota beat the Indiana Hoosiers last Friday night, pushing the Gophers’ record to 4-4. The Illini are coming off of a blowout loss to the Maryland Terrapins — the first ever matchup between those two teams.
As founding members of the Big Ten Conference, Illinois and Minnesota have been playing football against one another since 1898. The Gophers are winners of the last three against the Illini and hold the all-time series lead with 38 wins to Illinois’ 29 with three ties.
Bowl game eligibility is on the line here for both the Illini and the Gophers. Illinois needs to win three of its last four to become bowl eligible. After Minnesota, the Illini play at Nebraska, home versus Iowa and then at Northwestern. The Gophers need to win two of their last four games to become bowl eligible. After the Illini, the Gophers host Purdue and then Northwestern before a trip to Wisconsin where they close out the season. For Illinois and Minnesota, this game on Saturday represents the ‘easiest’ game left on each team’s respective schedule.
WHEN MINNESOTA HAS THE BALL
Shaky, injury-prone quarterback situation
Redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Morgan was the starter against Indiana last Friday, forced into action after a frightening (no Halloween pun intended) injury to regular starter Zach Annexstad the week prior against Nebraska. Annexstad was injured in the first half against the Cornhuskers following a nasty hit to his midsection and was rushed to the hospital. He was unable to play against the Hoosiers and his status is up in the air for the Illini game this weekend.
Assuming Tanner Morgan is the quarterback, Illinois will be dealing with an inexperienced player with a big arm and a player soaring in confidence following a career game in primetime last Friday night. Morgan completed 17 of 24 passes for 302 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. He’s not much of a runner, but he can move the pocket and get out of tough situations to roll out and find the open man.
Everything’s a bit easier with a star WR: See Tyler Johnson
Minnesota has one of the best wide receivers in the Big Ten in junior Tyler Johnson. The Minneapolis native was recruited as an athlete and held offers from Minnesota rivals Iowa and Wisconsin before ultimately staying home and committing to the Gophers.
Statistically, Tyler Johnson is having a big year in the Big Ten. He leads the conference in receiving yards, is tied with Ohio State’s Terry McLaurin for most receiving touchdowns and is Minnesota’s no. 1 threat offensively. He plays bigger than he is and is a solid blocker out on the edge.
Watch Johnson play as a slot receiver against Indiana in the red zone, making the tough catch in traffic on a critical 3rd down:
Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson is so pure. pic.twitter.com/o1w5RrZKXd— ryan (@StillRyanFive) October 27, 2018
Tyler Johnson was banged up in the Indiana game missed and most of the second half against the Hoosiers. He still hauled in five receptions for 102 yards and two touchdowns, including the one in the above clip. His status is in question for this coming Saturday, but he’ll feel the heat to play because of how important this game is to Minnesota’s hopes of going bowling.
Which Gopher will lead the rushing attack?
Minnesota, more than most teams, has been fighting the injury bug all season long. That applies just as much to the running back position as it does to the quarterback and wide receiver positions.
Rodney Smith was supposed to be the Gophers’ lead back before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Bryce Williams leads the team in carries this season. He hasn’t been the feature back since Week 3 when the Gophers trounced Miami (Ohio). Mohamed Ibrahim leads the Gophers in rushing yards — he did not play against Indiana for undisclosed reasons and it’s not clear if he’ll play against Illinois this Saturday.
Shannon Brooks, a senior who had five rushing touchdowns each of the last two seasons and who’s a been reliable workhorse back had a career game against Indiana last Friday night. He had 154 yards on 22 rushing attempts and scored a touchdown. Brooks has been facing some serious legal trouble: Those issues combined with a non-contact knee injury he sustained against Indiana puts his status up in the air for the game against Illinois this weekend.
A turbulent season defensively, even more so in the past week
The way the Illinois run defense has been playing — it gave up 431 yards on the ground to Maryland last week and 545 yards on the ground to Wisconsin the week before — it won’t matter who the Gophers use to run the football.
**On Monday mid-morning, news broke that Illinois defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson resigned from the team effective immediately due to “health-related circumstances.”
WHEN ILLINOIS HAS THE BALL
Inconsistent quarterback play continues
AJ Bush and MJ Rivers struggled against Maryland last weekend, as they have much of the season. Rivers’ performance against Maryland was the worst of his young career, after playing one of his best games in garbage time/relief duty against Wisconsin. Inconsistent play passing the ball has loomed large in Rod Smith’s no-huddle, rapid-speed offense.
The focus of course is still on this season, but the thought is 2019 recruit Isaiah Williams will be the starter right away next season. Many on our TCR staff believe he’s good enough to step in immediately and be a factor in the Big Ten — and compared to AJ Bush, MJ Rivers and the rest of the quarterbacks on the roster, Juice Jr. is more talented and a better fit for Rod Smith’s offense.
Reggie Corbin is an unstoppable force and Illinois’ best player
This will come as no surprise to Illinois fans, but Reggie Corbin has been tearing it up. His 8.0 yards per carry is not only best in the Big Ten, but ranks 4th best in the entire country. Corbin is coming off his best game of his career, too. Against Maryland, Corbin had 155 rushing yards on just 18 attempts and a touchdown. He also caught a 25-yard pass. In the first half especially, it seemed like Illinois’ only player capable of doing much of anything was Reggie Corbin — a one-man offense.
The Gophers have one of the better run-defenses in the Big Ten. Minnesota linebacker Carter Coughlin is a menace at stopping the run and he’s the guy the Illini offensive line will have to focus on as they prepare to host the Gophers. Couglin leads the Big Ten in sacks with nine, and he and his teammate Blake Cashman lead the conference in tackles for loss. Both are tied at the top of the Big Ten leaderboard with 12 tackles for loss. Coughlin also leads the conference in forced fumbles.
Illinois’ ability to get Reggie Corbin free and in open space is key to this game. Long passes downfield is not the Illini’s m.o. and they don’t really have the quarterback play to get that done, but they’ve shown progress utilizing screen passes to get the ball in Corbin’s hands.
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