Last week was a gut punch in every sense. Illinois played without 14 of its players due to the Big Ten’s COVID-19 protocol, and the Illini lost a fourth quarter heartbreaker to Purdue. Now the they face a desperate 0-2 Minnesota Golden Gophers team coming off of its best season in the modern era.
Similar to Illinois, Minnesota was blown out by a team with superior talent in Week 1. They followed that up by losing in overtime in Week 2 to the Taulia Tagovailoa-led Maryland Terrapins, the same team that lost by 40 points to Northwestern. For the Gophers, the game in College Park was no ordinary loss – the Gophers gave up 675 yards and blew a 17-point fourth quarter lead – and they lost in overtime.
Things can only get better for both teams… right?
Last year, QB Tanner Morgan came pretty much out of nowhere as a redshirt sophomore to throw for 3,253 yards, 30 TDs, and just 7 INTs. He was named to the All-Big Ten Conference team, behind only Ohio State’s Justin Fields. Morgan was not highly recruited out of Union, Kentucky, but he’s made a name for himself in the Big Ten. As a pro-style quarterback in a spread system, he’s been underutilized this year, especially late in games. Morgan will stand strong in the pocket, make his reads quickly, and deliver tightly-spiraled passes down the seam and over the top of the defense.
In addition to Morgan, Minnesota brought back All-Big Ten picks WR Rashod Bateman and LG Blaise Andries, while losing WR Tyler Johnson and RB Rodney Smith. Both Bateman and Kankakee native Chris Autumn-Bell are highly capable receivers, and they’ve combined for over 3,000 yards since the 2018 season. RB Mohamed Ibrahim has filled in well as the lead back, but he’s the only one on the team with more than eight carries. This could pose problems, especially with the Big Ten’s mandatory three-week inactive rule for anyone who test positive for COVID-19.
Minnesota returned all of the starters on its offensive line from last year, so it’s a bit surprising that PJ Fleck and OC Mike Sanford Jr. haven’t gone to the air more late in games. Late in the fourth quarter last week, Minnesota chose to run on first and second down in consecutive three and outs. Morgan has yet to throw for over 200 yards in a game, but he’ll have a good chance to do that against an Illini secondary that has been largely ineffective so far.
Did I mention that Minnesota gave up 675 yards last week? Although it’s a small sample size, the Gophers are giving up just shy of 580 yards and 47 points per game, and the opposing team has only punted twice in the first two games. Last year, the most points that Minnesota gave up was 38 points to Wisconsin in the de facto Big Ten West championship. The Golden Gophers have only sacked the quarterback twice this year, but they have deflected a respectable five passes.
Over the offseason, the Gophers lost four linemen, two starting linebackers, their primary nickel corner, and consensus All-American safety Antoine Winfield Jr. In the NFL, Winfield Jr. has already amassed a stat line of 37 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT, and a forced fumble for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. So, the Gophers lost an all-world defensive back and three starters on their 4-3 line. Losing three starting linemen with no true nose tackle would be tough for any Big Ten team, and Minnesota’s recruiting has been mediocre. Minnesota’s linebackers and defensive backs haven’t been communicating well in zone, haven’t been playing well in man, and they’re both responsible for a ton of missed tackles.
Joe Rossi took over as defensive coordinator in 2018 after the Illini trounced the Gophers 55-31. He simplified the defensive schemes for the linebackers, which required them to cover less ground. Unfortunately for Minnesota, Rossi’s defense is performing very poorly, and P.J. Fleck is an offensive-minded coach as it is. So far, the lone bright spot for Minnesota on defense this year was a 24-yard interception by 310-pound redshirt-freshman DeAngelo Carter.
Senior transfer Matthew Stephenson is only averaging 34.9 yards on 8 punts this year, after averaging 37.1 yards on 16 punts in his time at Middle Tennessee. Minnesota’s 34.9 yards per punt is fourth worst in FBS. Coincidentally, the Alabama Crimson Tide is fifth worst punting team in the country after two games, so even great teams can have punting issues early on. This could be a meaningless connection, but it could also suggest a regression to the mean for Stephenson.
Up until the end of the Maryland game, kicker Brock Walker was 2-2 on FGs and 8-8 on PATs on the season, but he missed the PAT to tie the game in overtime. It’s a little surprising that Fleck didn’t go for it on the road, and it ended up hurting the Gophers.
Punt returner Preston Jelen hasn’t had much to do in the punt return game as Minnesota has only been punted to twice this year, with only one return for 17 yards. The Gophers have employed four kick returners this year, and on seven returns, they’ve averaged a fairly standard 18.6 yards per kick return.
What to Expect
With the way these defenses are playing, this game will probably look more like a Big 12 game than a Big Ten game. Right now, Minnesota is favored by an even seven points, but that could change by as much as a field goal based on the injury report. We have to assume that Coran Taylor will be the starter, and starting center Doug Kramer will be out due to COVID-19 contact tracing. It was encouraging to see Jake Hansen have a great game against Purdue with 14 total tackles (eight solo), a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. It was even better to see him healthy after his scary injury against Wisconsin.
Both of these defenses are pretty bad right now, but Illinois’ defense is at least representative of the Big Ten. Minnesota is really something else, and I’m sure they’re champing at the bit to get a shot at an Illini offense without Doug Kramer and the top three quarterbacks on the depth chart. The Gophers have a very solid quarterback in Tanner Morgan, and they’ll need him to row the boat on Saturday. I think this game will be pretty high scoring, and it’ll probably come down to the final possession. I’m taking the Golden Gophers by a field goal.