Welcome to The Champaign Room Freshman Guide to Big Ten Football! As we’re now a full 15 years from my fall semester on the fourth floor of Allen Hall (pre-air conditioning), it occurs to me that I have a wealth of familiarity with our Big Ten foes that our incoming freshmen simply haven’t accumulated yet. Over the next month, I’ll be hosting this crash course on each of our conference opponents: what’s their deal, how good are they, who do we need to watch out for, and why they suck. My work at SBNation’s Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire has exposed me to a lot of opposing fandom and information on the rest of our conference brethren.
Today it’s time to talk about Wisconsin’s blood rivals. It’s the...
Minnesota Golden Gophers
The history of the Golden Gophers is actually very similar to that of the Fighting Illini—prior to the mid-1960’s, they were recognized as a national powerhouse. Minnesota claims seven national titles, albeit one in 1960 that finished 8-2 with a home loss to 4-4-1 Purdue. Under coaches Henry L. Williams, Bernie Bierman and Murray Warmath, the Gophers racked up an impressive winning record in the first hundred years of college football’s existence.
Since Warmath’s final Big Ten title in 1967, Minnesota’s history has been very similar to that of Illinois, but without the occasional conference title or Rose Bowl berth. They hung out around .500 until falling off a cliff in the early 80s as Illinois swept the Big Ten, then recovered to 7-5 under first-year head coach Lou Holtz only to watch him go to Notre Dame and win a national title.
In the last 25 years, however, Minnesota has been consistently better than Illinois, which is to say they have more winning seasons and their floor is generally higher (for instance, only three seasons of 3 wins or worse in that time frame—we have 10).
However, they’re resentful because in that timeframe Illinois still managed a conference title, a Sugar Bowl and a Rose Bowl in another season. Minnesota has done none of those things. The closest they came was in 2019 under P.J. Fleck, but they blew their shot at Pasadena against Wisconsin.
They’ve only canned one coach for incompetence in the last 25 years (former Illini Tim Brewster), while Jerry Kill resigned and Tracy Claeys was run out of town for overseeing horrific crimes by his players and covering it up. Fleck has managed to sustain over-.500 football with minimal damage to the community.
History vs Illinois
Oddly, Illinois only played Minnesota fifteen times before 1940. The series went back and forth until the Illini racked up a winning streak in the 80s. However, it really started to turn about 25 years ago: since 1995, the Illini have won just six of their last 21 games against the Gophers. It’s not like all these losses are to good teams either; Ron Zook went 2-3 against Minnesota when they were at their lowest point and these losses included a Homecoming game where 462 passing yards resulted in only 20 points; a Senior Day debacle against a Gophers team that had already fired their head coach; and the nail in Zook’s coffin, a lifeless 27-7 burial by a 2-9 Minnesota team that cemented his 2011 squad’s fall from 6-0 to 6-6.
Illinois’s last three wins against Minnesota have all been at points in the season where the Gophers were starting to think this could be a magical season…only to lose to the Illini. This was the case in 2014, 2018 and last year.
Overall, Illinois (5 national championships, 15 conference titles) is 31-40-3 against Minnesota (7 national championships, 18 conference titles)
Minnesota started off with a shootout against Ohio State in which they were going toe-to-toe with the Buckeyes until a devastating injury ended the season of star back Mohamed Ibrahim. This took the wind out of their sails and Ohio State iced it late. After escaping Miami of Ohio, they slaughtered Colorado on the road 30-0 before returning to face the worst offense in college football at the time in Bowling Green.
They lost 14-10 as 30-point favorites, largely thanks to three turnovers and a baffling inability to gain yards on offense.
However, they rallied for four Big Ten wins in a row, which included Purdue and culminated with a demolition of Northwestern. Somehow this was enough to vault them to #20 in the polls ahead of a home game with Illinois. It was time to, as P.J. Fleck’s endlessly-repeated personal mantra goes, “row the boat.”
The home loss to Illinois marked their last appearance in the top 25, as they’d lose to Iowa to take themselves out of division title contention. They did, however, reclaim their coveted rivalry trophy (Paul Bunyan’s Axe) from Wisconsin and finished 9-4 with a bowl win.
Coaching Staff & Identity
Heading into his sixth season as the helmsman of this particular rowboat is head coach P.J. Fleck.
The Illini have suffered some very decisive losses to Fleck’s Gophers, but none were as horrible as the beating Fleck’s Western Michigan Broncos delivered to Lovie Smith’s first Illinois team back in 2016. The Illini never had a chance in this beatdown, largely because they couldn’t stop the run and they only gained 23 yards on the ground. Fleck rose to prominence leading a post-Bill Cubit Western Michigan from 1-11 all the way to the Orange Bowl in four years. He did this by vastly out-recruiting the rest of his conference.
This obviously hasn’t been possible in the Big Ten, but he’s become popular nonetheless for the kinds of antics fans love when you win and hate when you lose. Fleck has a habit of performatively sprinting down to the other end of the field when the teams change sides between quarters.
Fleck ditched offensive coordinator Mike Sanford last year for very understandable reasons. He’s brought back Kirk Ciarrocca to fill the void. Ciarocca was the architect of the offense from Minnesota’s 11-win 2019 campaign. This raised his profile so high that Penn State poached him, but found him inadequate after two seasons.
I expect Ciarrocca’s offense to be a little more diverse than Sanford’s hideous plodding trainwreck. He runs a spread offense that usually has 3 wideouts, a tight end and a back. The primary play is a zone-read concept where the quarterback decides to hand off or keep the ball based on where the defense goes after the snap. This kind of offense is ground-oriented but is designed to take advantage of defenses getting aggressive against the run by throwing over the top.
Former Rutgers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi is in his fifth season as the defensive coordinator, and contrary to what I said about Wisconsin, Minnesota also has a tendency to run a 3-4 defense that uses Cover 4 extensively and blitzes aggressively. This can make it difficult to run against them unless you can use misdirection to maneuver around the blitz. Illinois had early success on their first scripted drive, but ground to a halt over the final three quarters.
Dudes To Watch
Super-duper-senior back Mohamed Ibrahim and Trey Potts are a hell of a rushing tandem. They have a decent deep threat receiver in Chris Autman-Bell, but the offense will go as far as Bell’s ability to beat coverage and keep defenses from cheating against the run. Veteran quarterback Tanner Morgan owes a lot of his success to the receivers he’s had in Minnesota, and the room looks pretty thin right now.
The defensive secondary looks pretty formidable with a corner in Justin Walley who was named a Freshman All-American last year and veteran safeties Tyler Nubin and Jordan Howden.
Season Prediction & Fan Expectations
The vibe in Minnesota is…comfortable? Basically, they’re expecting roughly 8 wins a year, and for now that seems to satisfy them, especially if one of those wins is Wisconsin.
I think it’s fair to say that they’re looking for eight wins and for all the boys to just have a lot of fun out there, after all it IS a game donchaknow.
Illinois Game Prediction
Boy, there sure are a lot of teams in the Big Ten West that like to run the ball and can’t really throw it very well. This game is probably going to be pretty low-scoring, but Minnesota has the most dangerous offensive player in the game in Chris Autman-Bell, so I would lean Minnesota by a touchdown or so.
While this man was an assistant coach at the time, I think he sums up the culture better than any fan I’ve ever seen.
Why Minnesota Sucks
Do you know how long ago Minnesota’s last conference title was?
They shared it with INDIANA.
If you have a history that I can reasonably compare and contrast with Illinois over the last 55 years, you do not have a great football program.
If P.J. Fleck weren’t in coaching, you bet your ass he’d be a social media lifestyle influencer, maybe even a CrossFit instructor. He’s known for taking recruits out on a boat in one of the Ten Thousand Lakes Minnesota is famous for and pressuring them to commit right then and there. They can’t refuse. Because of the implication.
Dude dude dude. Think about it, he’s out in the middle of nowhere with some coach he barely knows…He looks around and what’s he see? Nothing but open lake. “Ahhh there’s nowhere for me to run! What am I gonna do, say no?”
…That’s not dark, you’re just misunderstanding it, bro. If the recruit says no, the answer is obviously no. But the thing is he’s not gonna say no, he would never say no.
Because of the implication.
In 2016, Minnesota safety Duke McGhee knocked out Illini receiver Malik Turner with a textbook headhunting cheap shot. The Gophers that year had already had ejections for targeting in five of their games, and it was October. The stadium fell silent, except for McGhee running over to a defensive coach and doing a prominent jumping hip bump right there on the field, then getting dapped up by the rest of his bois. His ejection for targeting, which was never really in question, didn’t dampen the mood over on their sideline. What an asshole.
People from Minnesota are so passive-aggressive that they don’t even use the term “passive-aggressive.” Instead they call it “Minnesota Nice”!
TCRBrad: PJ Fleck is the “free space” here, so let’s carry on. Glen Mason was a discount Barry Alvarez. The Minnesota game of 2010 was the downfall of what COULD have been an Outback Bowl appearance for Mikel Leshoure and Illinois, but a last minute 38-34 loss to a 1-9 Gopher squad on Senior Day in Champaign was one of the WORST losses I’ve seen in Memorial Stadium.
Alex Orr: PJ Fleck is a dorkus malorkus.
Drew Pastorek: I don’t really dislike Minnesota all that much, since my uncle lived in the Twin Cities for decades and I actually saw my first-ever live college football game in the old Metrodome, a 33-7 win against Ohio. I think my mom still has the ticket stub in a scrapbook somehwere.
But I just can’t help rooting against them because of their doofus head coach.
“Dorkus malorkus” is a way better description of P.J. Fleck than “megapastor” or “used car salesman.” Consider my thunder officially stolen. And his “motto” isn’t even ACTUALLY his. He had to pay Western Michigan to continue using it — and of course he wrote a BESTSELLER about how to “lead with enthusiasm and optimism” and a bunch of other performative buzzword bullshit.
I’m glad some former players finally started speaking out about Fleck’ self-obsession and phoniness, and I’m sure he’ll skate by until the first time the Gophers go 4-8.
He Was A High School Quarterback (Off Tackle Empire): I don’t know if I ever remember a good Illinois team shitting the bed so completely as when Illinois went to the Cities and lost to 2-9 Jim Wacker and the Gophers in 1992. That team went to Ann Arbor and tied 1st place, #3 ranked Michigan. They went to Columbus and beat #21 and second place OSU. They lost to last place Minnesota and lost to next to last place Northwestern in Champaign. That was my freshman year. Little did I know that I would be staring down 30 years of garbage Illinois football then, but here we are.