The Illini, coming off an embarrassment in Maryland, return home this weekend to face off with 4-4 Minnesota, who is looking to inch closer to a bowl berth. We talked to The Daily Gopher to preview this weekend’s matchup of two teams in the middle of program rebuilds.
TCR: First things first, how is Zach Annexstad? How is his recovery going and will he suit up on Saturday?
The Daily Gopher: There is very little information about Annexstad and how his health is. And after the way that Tanner Morgan played with poise, confidence and accuracy in the win over Indiana; I’d be surprised if he doesn’t play again this weekend. Both have been solid as freshmen and give a glimmer of hope for the future of that position for the Gophers.
TCR: Tyler Johnson has quietly been one of the best receiving options in the Big Ten. With eight touchdowns and over 800 yards, what kind of game are fans expecting from him against an Illinois defense that has shown little ability to stop the pass?
TDG: Tyler Johnson is really good. He’s not the biggest or the fastest, but he is really good at setting up defenders to allow himself to get a little separation and open. But it has also really helped that he has a couple of other talented receivers and a quarterback who can get him the ball. He’s having the best receiving season since Eric Decker’s junior year in 2008. But true freshman Rashod Bateman’s season is very good as well.
TCR: As someone who knows a little something about great kickers, how big has Emmit Carpenter been for this team?
TDG: At no point has he really been needed to come through in the clutch for a huge kick, but he’s just so reliable that it becomes really easy to take him for granted.
TCR: With Minnesota at 1-4 in conference play and Illinois at 1-4, this game could determine who remains in last place in the Big Ten West. What would fan reaction be if Minnesota finished last this season coming off a two win season in 2017?
TDG: That would be really bad for this fanbase. As another program who has gone through several coaching changes in recent memory, you probably are familiar with the splintering of the fanbase. Those who quickly determine that the current coaching staff isn’t capable of leading the program forward and those who see glimmers of hope while realizing that you have to give a staff at least 3 or 4 years before you really know anything. This is year 2 of the Fleck Era and going backwards would be bad for those of us who have to be a part of the discussion throughout the offseason. But if you were to ask about what it means for the program and opportunity for future success? I don’t think it would make much of a difference.
TCR: P.J. Fleck seems like a crazy person. How are his antics being received by fans and alumni alike?
TDG: Depends on who you ask (see my answer to question 4). People who believe that his ‘antics’ are calculated and purposeful as he a highly detailed, control freak; well they have no problem with it. Those who thing he is all flash with little substance, they think he’s a clown. It is only halfway through his second season, I’m willing to give him more time to see how his plan plays out.
TCR: Who wins Saturday and why?
TDG: I think Minnesota wins on Saturday. By most metrics, Illinois is worse than the Gophers. Of course, a couple turnovers here or there and things flip around pretty easily. The fact that Illinois ranks 113th in Rush Def S&P and 129th in Pass Def S&P, I think the Minnesota offense is going to be able to move the ball. After Daniel Faalele was put in at right tackle, the offensive line has been quite good, making the rest of the offense much more efficient. Illinois will get a few big plays (cause everyone does against this defense), but Minnesota gets this win on the road.
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