It has been a nine days since Illinois has last played and a full three weeks since the Illini have been victorious.
Illinois has a steep challenge ahead as they go on the road to play a 4-0 Minnesota team.
“We’re getting ready to play a team that’s undefeated, that gets your attention in itself,” head coach Lovie Smith said.
Illinois used its bye week to rest and heal up and used a little extra time to prepare to play a team that is undefeated.
The Illini are coming off a pair of losses at Memorial Stadium by a total of seven points. The most recent game was a 42-38 loss at the hands of Nebraska, a game where Illinois held a lead for the majority of the game.
The defense struggled and ultimately gave up almost 700 total yards, with more than 300 both in the air and on the ground. Despite forcing four fumbles, Illinois was getting gashed for big play after big play.
Offensively, the Illini did not accumulate more than 100 yards passing despite the running game being as solid as it’s been all year.
However you look at the Nebraska game, the fact of the matter is Illinois lost a winnable game and is looking to get back on track this week. The Illini will be rested, healed and prepared for their contest with Minnesota this weekend.
“I think they were disappointed after the loss,” Smith said. “You go back to work and try to correct things to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Captain Jake Hansen played well last week at linebacker, forcing and recovering a fumble and getting many tackles. But Hansen could do better this week individually and as a leader especially in terms of preserving leads when the team has them.
“We got to play better overall, and just tighten down in the fourth quarter because that’s where we’ve lost those games
“It’s more mental because we’re all in shape physically,” Hansen said.
This game for Illinois will be about playing a complete game. Lovie Smith stressed the importance of a good pass rush defensively.
That starts with Oluwole Betiku, who is tied for second in the nation in sacks despite being off this past week.
“We can’t take any play for granted, we have to start fast and finish strong,” Betiku said.
In terms of getting pressure on Tanner Morgan, the transfer emphasized that effort is key.
“Just play hard, get maximum effort on the field and leave it out there,” Betiku said.
Defensively, Illinois will be trying to keep Minnesota’s quarterback Tanner Morgan off balance so he does not have enough time to deliver the football to the Gophers’ explosive wide receivers.
Minnesota has a pair of wide receivers who have racked up over 300 yards receiving. Tyler Johnson has 312 yards receiving and Rashod Bateman has 466 yards, averaging over 115 yards per game.
However, Illinois had good luck against P.J. Fleck’s Minnesota squad last year. The Illini defeated the Golden Gophers 55-31 for the team’s most recent win in the Big Ten. The offense led by AJ Bush and Reggie Corbin thrashed the Gophers. Smith mentioned that the team certainly has some confidence following last year’s win.
“It helps whenever you’ve had success against someone,” Smith said. ““We feel like we matchup well.”
Despite the fact that Illinois did beat them, that does not make it any easier for the Illini to go into Minnesota and steal a win.
“It’ll be a big challenge for us,” Smith said.
Illinois is currently 2-2, but could very well be 4-0 like Minnesota. Smith was able to bring the entire situation into perspective.
“We’re 0-1 in Big Ten play right now, we’re anxious to get back on the field and win one.”
Winning one, would tie Illinois with Minnesota near the top of the Big Ten West standings. But in terms of the week as a whole, Lovie Smith kept it simple.
“We’re excited about playing an undefeated football team,” Smith said.
The Illini will do just that this weekend against Minnesota, with kickoff set for 2:30 p.m. Saturday on Big Ten Network.