I cannot wait for the Minnesota game this year. Why? First off, because I’m sure P.J. Fleck will be preparing extra hard to defend the run game against Reggie Corbin and the rest of the Illini offense that stunned Fleck’s Gophers 55-31 last year in Champaign.
I’m not sure if I expect a victory again this year. The run game for the Illini will certainly need to settle in after losing AJ Bush, who was an incredible runner and compliment to Corbin, Ra’Von Bonner, and the rest of the Illini backfield. Now, if Isaiah Williams is ready to go by the time the team travels to the Twin Cities and he is playing at the level that we hope, this could be a totally different story. But for now, I think it will at least be a competitive game.
Just as Illinois is returning a great number of players on both sides of the ball, Minnesota was a relatively young team last year and will have plenty of familiar names on the field. Zack Annexstad got the majority of reps at quarterback, completing a little over half his passes for 1,200 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. Of course, Tanner Morgan was the starter against Illinois in Annexstad’s absence, but it is likely we see more of the sophomore Annextad this season.
Considering the Illini defense was historically bad last year (the only way to go is up, right?), there are several players that cause concern on Minnesota’s roster. Wideout Rashod Bateman had seven catches for 175 yards and two scores last year in the matchup against Illinois. Although Illinois outran Minnesota by a mile (430 yards to the Gophers’ 178), Minnesota showed its versatility through the air with Morgan and Bateman. That being said, the player I am most concerned about will be taking the ball up the middle.
Mohamed Ibrahim is entering his redshirt-sophomore year after leading the team in rushing last season. He put up 1,160 yards on 202 attempts (5.7 yards per carry) and notched nine touchdowns. Although Ibrahim does not appear to be a great threat to catch the ball out of the backfield (he had just four receptions for 26 yards in 2018), Fleck doesn’t seem to utilize the running backs in the passing game much, so this is not necessarily an indictment on Ibrahim’s versatility.
In the game against Illinois, Ibrahim was also the leading rusher for Minnesota with 18 carries for 98 yards and a pair of touchdowns. At 5-foot-10, 210 pounds, Ibrahim might not always show off breakaway speed, but he likes to run the ball up the gut and run over whoever he can. That being said, he still has plenty of tape on why he led the team in rushing last season, with good footwork and ability to read the defense.
The run defense for Illinois is a particular area of concern heading into 2019, with the injury to Bobby Roundtree and lack of experience within the front seven. I am hopeful that the return of Jake Hansen and addition of Milo Eifler can solidify the linebacking core a bit, but I am still imagining any improvement will be nominal at best. I have a great deal of trust in Nate Hobbs and Tony Adams in the secondary, and Quan Martin and Sydney Brown appear to be legitimate Big Ten talents. We will see how the season plays out, but watch for Ibrahim in the game. If he is breaking away early on in the first half, it could be a long day for the Illini.