Last week’s win over the Iowa Hawkeyes was a historic achievement for Illinois football. Both the players and the coaching staff deserve the No. 24 AP Poll ranking that they earned through the win.
But the game also exposed some deficiencies that teams better than Iowa will exploit. Lo and behold, the Minnesota Golden Gophers are coming to Champaign this Saturday intent to earn a revenge win of their own after the Illini defeated them 14-6 last season in the Twin Cities.
Can the Illini continue their climb in the rankings with a win on Saturday? Yes, regardless of who plays quarterback, but it’s absolutely critical that they...
Reduce the Turnovers
As someone who’s followed the Illini football program closely since 2010, I’m the last person to complain about their sudden emergence and often dominant play this season. But Bielema’s squad hasn’t been perfect, and turning the ball over has been one of this team’s few consistent bugaboos.
The Illini have lost the turnover battle against three of their four Power Five opponents this year. Fortunately, Ryan Walters’ elite defense bailed Illinois out of a near catastrophe against Iowa last weekend, and the Virginia offense was simply moribund in its first road trip earlier this year. The turnover margin has only come back to bite the Illini so far in the Indiana game.
Minnesota is going to be the best opponent Illinois will have faced all year to this point, and the Gophers are a mirror image of the Illini in many ways. Minnesota also has a superstar running back in Mo Ibrahim, who will likely make his return to the field this weekend, as well as a suffocating defense led by linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin.
Illinois should have the advantage in this game with a packed Homecoming crowd in Memorial Stadium, but the possibility of playing without Tommy DeVito levels the playing field.
Simply put, the Gophers will punish any Illini turnovers and use short field advantages to generate points in ways that the Hawkeyes couldn’t manage last weekend. The Illini played an exceptionally clean game against the Badgers at Camp Randall, which led in part to such a lopsided score, and they’ll need to turn in a similar performance if they want to come out on top against Minnesota.
Last season, Brandon Peters only passed the ball nine times en route to an Illini win over Minnesota, so passing should be optional on Saturday as well. Keeping the ball on the ground and in Chase Brown’s capable hands will be essential to limiting Minnesota’s opportunities for takeaways. Barry Lunney would be especially wise to focus on the run game if Sitkowski is starting and Josh McCray is able to see action again.
This is typically where I’d segue into another point of emphasis for the Illini on Saturday. But to be honest, the rest is pretty simple. Aside from limiting turnovers, all the Illini really need to do to win next week will be to...
Continue Playing Illini Football
For the first time in what seems like ages, Illinois football has a recognizable identity that is actually generating wins. The Illini are going to run the ball with an elite tailback behind an experienced offensive line, and stop the run on the other side with a disciplined and talented defensive front.
It’s a very simple formula, but it’s been extraordinarily effective so far. Unless the circumstances of the game demand it, there’s going to be no need for Barry Lunney to suddenly air the ball out like Tony Petersen did against Wisconsin last year. And there will be even less reason for Ryan Walters to change up anything on the defensive side.
Illinois needs to just keep playing the brand of football that they’ve played up to this point. It’s already delivered wins over Iowa and Wisconsin in the same season for the first time since 1989, and brought home a national ranking for the first time since 2011. Now let’s keep it up against Minnesota see just how far this brand of football can take us this year.