The 72nd meeting between the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Minnesota Golden Gophers takes place on Saturday. The Illini continue the 2019 campaign after resting up post-Nebraska loss during a bye week. The Gophers are back at it after beating Purdue 38-31 on the road last week.
Minnesota had an interesting non-conference slate, barely beating (all one-score games) South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern. Big Ten play marches on.
When Minnesota Has The Ball
Quarterback Tanner Morgan is not so bad... in fact, he’s pretty good.
The former three-star pro-style quarterback from Kentucky has played pretty well so far this season, and his stats look great just four games in — again, slightly inflated because of the non-conference slate, but hey — Minnesota did what Illinois could not do — take care of business in the first four games of the season.
Morgan is coming off of what could be considered a perfect game. Against a depleted Boilermakers defense, Morgan was 21-of-22 for 396 yards, four touchdown passes and no interceptions.
Against the Illini a season ago, Morgan’s completion percentage was not great but he did throw two touchdown passes to no interceptions. Illinois’ offense could not be stopped in that game in Champaign last year, and Morgan was hardly at fault for Minnesota’s 24-point beatdown.
I wouldn’t call Tanner Morgan immobile, but similar to Brandon Peters, he’ll take what the offense gives him though he prefers to stay in the pocket and sling it. He makes smart, calculated throws and rarely forces the issue. He’s completing over 73 percent of his passes in 2019 and has 10 touchdown passes to two interceptions — that’s simply amazing and proves that he is playing better football than he was a season ago.
There is depth in the Golden Gopher rushing attack
Because of injuries/redshirting (namely a torn ACL last season), this is Minnesota running back Rodney Smith’s sixth year with the program. He had 115 yards and one touchdown on 22 carries against Purdue last week. He also had a catch for 20 yards and he can be used in screen-pass situations. In 2016, Smith’s best season, the Golden Gopher back had 1,158 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns — the latter of which was 2nd best in the Big Ten behind Penn State’s Saquon Barkley.
Senior running back Mohamed Ibrahim (Minnesota’s leading rusher when Illinois played the Gophers last year) is still on the team and has a couple of rushing touchdowns this season — but he’s missed the last couple of weeks because of a foot injury. He’s listed as questionable to play against the Illini this week.
Shannon Brooks is another senior running back at Minnesota, and he’s been battling injuries as well. He was cleared to play against Purdue and had five rushing attempts in that game. Expect him to be the primary spell back behind Rodney Smith on Saturday as Minnesota slowly works him back into the fold.
Minnesota has three excellent receivers. The top threat to watch is senior wide receiver Tyler Johnson.
Minnesota fans will be the first to claim this, and the numbers don’t lie: Tyler Johnson is one of the best players to ever play for the Golden Gophers, and he’s a generational talent at the wide receiver position.
Johnson led the Big Ten last year in receiving touchdowns with 12 — and that was good for eighth best in the entire country. In 2017 as a sophomore, Johnson led the conference in receiving yards per reception. At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, there are certainly bigger receivers than Johnson, but it’s his body control in the air, especially in the red zone that’s impossible to stop.
This season so far Johnson has 25 catches for 312 yards and four touchdowns.
Donovan Peoples Jones on Michigan is faster, and more of the big-play threat and the better NFL prospect, but Tyler Johnson is the best receiver Illinois will face in 2019. Double teaming him, especially inside Illinois own half is a must for the Illini defensive backs.
Tyler Johnson has help, and this wide receiving corps is likely the best Illinois will face all year. Rashod Bateman is 6-foot-3, and the native Georgian turned down offers from SEC programs Georgia, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Tennessee and more to play for PJ Fleck. Bateman leads the Gophers in receiving yards, and his hands are eye-poppingly good:
Bateman had two touchdown catches against Purdue last week, but the above video was more impressive than those scoring plays — he’s a load to cover, especially in the slot where he seems to play most often.
Chris Autman-Bell is Minnesota’s third receiving option, and he plays like he could be a WR1. The sophomore has just nine catches on the season, but they’re mostly big plays and he did score a 70-yard bomb in the Purdue game.
When Illinois Has The Ball
Senior-laden defense is improving... and intimidating
The big name on Minnesota’s defense is senior defensive end Carter Coughlin. He often gets double-teamed and is the vocal leader and extension of the coaches on the field. His numbers this season don’t particularly stand out, but make no mistake — he’s an anchor of what the Gophers try to do defensively.
Senior linebacker Kamal Martin is a big, big guy at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds. He had two interceptions against Purdue.
Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. is back in 2019 after suffering two serious injuries that forced him to miss most of the 2017 and 2018 seasons. He has 23 tackles, a sack and an interception just four games into this current season as he looks to prove his consistency enough to garner more attention from NFL scouts. His co-safety in the defensive backfield is Jordan Howden, who’s having a nice season and does a great job of batting down passes and covering receivers deep.
The Gophers rank No. 40 in total defense so far. The Big Ten teams that are better? Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State, Michigan, Northwestern and Indiana. Minnesota has the pieces, but they do miss a lot of tackles — and certainly did down the stretch in the Purdue game last week.
Minnesota’s kicker is true freshman Michael Lantz. He missed an extra point in Minnesota’s opening game against South Dakota State, so that’s something to keep an eye on. Lantz is 2-of-4 on field goal attempts. He made a 32-yarder against Purdue last week and a 37-yarder against Fresno State in what was a three-point win.
Running back Rodney Smith handles most of the kick returns and redshirt sophomore receiver Demetrius Douglas handles most of the punt returns. Neither has scored or has come close to scoring in the return game so far this season. Antoine Winfield Jr. is probably the team’s best returner and assumed those duties before he got hurt last year — but it appears the coaching staff does not want to increase Winfield’s chances of a third serious injury by putting him out there on special teams this season.
Punters are people too
That’s especially true for Minnesota senior punter Jacob Herbers fresh off of earning B1G Special Teams Player of the Week honors post-Purdue win. Herbers downed two separate punts inside Purdue’s own two-yard line.