There really is no shortage of individual players who have dominated Illinois in the Big Ten recently. My colleagues have pointed out a number of them, but players like Minnesota redshirt-senior RB Rodney Smith seem to have an even more gut-wrenching impact on Illini fans because they often tip the balance in winnable games. Sure, we’re all dreading facing Trace McSorley and Jonathan Taylor. Who isn’t? But Penn State and Wisconsin are almost assured to beat Illinois even without some of their best players.
Lovie Smith came within one score of beating Minnesota last season and securing a conference victory, but Rodney Smith combined with Kobe McCrary to put up 257 rushing yards and secure the Gophers’ victory.
That wasn’t the first time Rodney Smith had torched the Illini. Smith led Minnesota with 100 rushing yards and two touchdowns as the Gophers romped Illinois on Homecoming in 2016:
I absolutely respect Rodney Smith for his body of work throughout his long career at Minnesota. His stat line shows that he has 626 rushes for 2,805 yards, which makes him the school’s eighth leading rusher, and his 21 rushing touchdowns is good for ninth-most at Minnesota. His elusiveness, speed and vision have made him one of the better running backs in the conference over the past few years.
With luck, the improved and more experienced Illini defense will be able to contain Smith. Illinois’ young and somewhat undersized defenders will now have a year in Hardy Nickerson’s system, along with an off-season of strength and conditioning. Hopefully Nickerson can find a way to keep Smith from running wild in the upcoming matchup, but at the end of the day, a defense can only do so much to stop a standout like Rodney Smith.