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Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Minnesota Gophers: Preview, predictions and prognostications

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When: Sat. Nov 21; Noon ET
Where: Minneapolis, MN; TCF Bank Stadium (50,720)
TV: ESPNews
All-Time Series: Minnesota leads 35-29-3
Last Meeting: Illinois won 28-24 (Nov. 25, 2014)
Line: Minnesota -7

It’s that time of year when one game can make the difference between a good season and a disappointing one. Such is the case in Minneapolis where both teams are hovering around mediocre close to .500. Tracy Claeys is still looking for his first Big Ten victory since being named the full-time head man. His teams have played competitive against quality competition, but the Gophers have yet to break through.

For interim head man Bill Cubit, a win would move him closer to having the temporary tag removed from his name. His teams have played fairly well considering all the road construction signs in and around the program, but there’s a  lack of a statement win, and a loack of consistency. It’d be nice to makek progress towards that Saturday.

1 Burning Question: Bowling anyone?

Neither team has yet to qualify for a bowl, but both still can. Illinois can do so with a win today or next week, while the Gophers need to sweep their last two here and then next week against Wisconsin. There is an outside chance that a 5-7 team can get into a bowl, but that won’t be a measure of success for both programs looking to take a step forward.

2 Key Stats:

— 140.7. That’s the amount of yards rushing for Minnesota per game. While it doesn’t sound horrible, it’s not enough to control games like the Gopher teams of the past. There’s a lack of play-making ability on the outside, so it’s crucial for them to try to get some tough yards on the ground to try and move the chains.

— 131.9. That’s also the average yards rushing per game on the ground, but for Illinois. That number has been so much better with Josh Ferguson in the mix, so his presence needs to create that balance on the ground to loosen up a good Minnesota secondary.

3 Key Players:

Josh Ferguson, Illinois RB: He’s the engine that makes the Illini motor go. With him, Illinois has a game-breaker that can not only get yards on the ground, but who can be a matchup nightmare out in space. He could be the difference in this one.

Mitch Leidner, Minnesota QB: The numbers haven’t been great for Leidner, but he’s been improving over the last few weeks, creating some semblance of a passing game for a Gopher team that has had issues moving the ball. In a game that will likely be a gound affair, the quarterback that can have the most productive day through the air, might will his team to a win. Leidner has had the better go of it the last few weeks than his counterpart Wes Lunt.

K.J. Maye, Minnesota, WR: Part of the reason Leidner has experienced a bump in production is because of the emergence of K.J. Maye. If you watched the Minnesota/Michigan game, you saw what type of hands and play-making skills the former running back can display, and at crucial times. He might be big on third downs.

4 Bold Prognostications:

— Josh Ferguson will go for over 100 yards on the ground, and over 50 receiving. He’s going to be featured big time in this one both swinging the ball out wide and taking handoffs to make plays and keep the chains moving. He’ll have a big day.

— It’ll be a low scoring affair. It’s late November in Minneapolis, so there’s no surprise that the weather is crisp. In November in the north, passing becomes much more difficult meaning both teams will likely keep it on the ground. Both offenses will be fairly predictable meaning real-estate will be tough to find. Scoring will be at a premium.

— We’ll see at least three interceptions in the game. Both teams will be forced to throw at times in third and long situations, and with the predictability and weather, some mistakes will be made.

— Special teams will win the game. This game will be close throughout with both teams looking to find lanes to run in a slug ’em out type of game. Field position will be huge to swing the balance in this one with little offense. A big return, a field goal, or a block in the kicking game will prove vital.

5 Staff Predictions:

Andy: Minnesota 27-21 (78-20 overall; 46-51 ATS)
Dave: Minnesota 34-23 (81-17 overall; 51-45 ATS)
Greg: Minnesota 27-17 (74-26 overall; 54-42 ATS)
Matt: Minnesota 31-28 (79-19 overall; 56-40 ATS)
Phil: Minnesota 22-20 (33-12 overall; 15-27 ATS) *joined in Week 5

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Illini Football

Predicting the 2018 Illinois Fighting Illini season game-by-game

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We’re nearing game week and that means it is time to gather all the intel possible and make the best decisions possible…because it’s time to put our money where our mouths are. 

Yes, the annual tradition of Illinois Fighting Illini season predictions is back. Yes, we’re also going to break down the season in game-by-game fashion. 

No, you won’t see it in the written form. Instead, we’re going 21st century and giving you our publisher, Andrew Coppens, thoughts in video format. 

The Illini went first (no coincidence to alphabetical order), so you can follow along by subscribing to our YouTube channel as well. 

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Also don’t forget to join in the conversation below and let us know your thoughts on the season and your predictions too! 

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Illini Football

Illini look to fresh jerseys to help reboot football program

Illinois reaches to its successful past in hopes of sparking interest in struggling football program of today. It means new uniforms for the football program.

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Nothing says trying to shed a bad image like rebooting your jersey and helmet looks. When you’re the Illinois Fighting Illini and you’ve compiled a whopping 5-19 overall record and just two Big Ten wins in the last two years, a reboot is probably a good idea.

On Friday morning, the Illini announced exactly that, keeping the school colors and even the Gray Ghost uniforms they have worn to pay homage to the Galloping Ghost himself, Harold “Red” Grange. The new uniforms feature a much simpler look and a more defined block “I” on the v of the neck.

For you old-timers out there, these uniforms are likely to look very familiar to you. That’s because they harken back to the Illini glory days of the Dick Butkus era in the 1960’s.

One of the biggest additions to the uniform combinations is that of a re-designed orange helmet. Gone is the metallic look, replaced by a matted finish and a color that more accurately fits the uniform color as well.

Illinois will begin wearing the new gear for the home opener on Sept. 1 against Kent State and of course will begin to be available for purchase (blue only apparently) this fall as well.

As for the design, I like the simplified look and feel of the jersey. Illinois has a color scheme that stands out in the Big Ten, so why try to hide it. Instead, they are embracing history and moving forward to hopefully more success.

With all the momentum off the field, hopefully Love Smith and crew can deliver some of that same momentum on the field. We’ll have an idea about that when the Illini hold an open practice tomorrow, April 7.

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Illini Hockey

Feasibility study suggests Illini could add hockey program

Feasibility study recommends Illini add men’s hockey program, will the Illini actually follow through?

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The state of Illinois is one of the most talent-rich areas for youth hockey in the United States of America outside the state of Minnesota. Yet, kids growing up in the state have little choice but to head outside of the state if they want to play on the highest levels.

All of that could be changing in the near future, as the University of Illinois athletic department announced the findings of a feasibility study in to adding hockey as a varsity sport. The findings indicated that adding the sport would be something positive.

“The strong consensus of everyone involved in college hockey is that NCAA men’s hockey will flourish at the University of Illinois,” said Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey, Inc. “From the number of native Illinois players currently playing college hockey to the continued growth of youth hockey players in the state, there are many reasons to be confident that the Fighting Illini could quickly become a top national program and sustain it every year.  We are very appreciative of the University administration’s willingness to consider bringing NCAA hockey to Champaign.”

The NHL and it’s Player’s Association are also on board with the Illini adding hockey and indicated they agree with what the folks at College Hockey, Inc. had to say. Additionally, the university athletics department made it clear they would be open to adding the sport, but with one big caveat — funding.

“We are excited to share the results of our feasibility study and continue advancing our efforts to bring Division I hockey to Champaign-Urbana,” said Illinois Director of Athletics Josh Whitman. “This is one of our most ambitious and potentially impactful projects in recent memory.”

One of the biggest issues would be getting a new arena off the ground for this type of program. In fact, it was the specific mention of Whitman in his statement about the feasibility study.

“Adding Division I hockey and building the new arena it would require would be transformative for the sport of hockey in the state of Illinois and for our university, our athletic program, and, importantly, for the Champaign-Urbana communities,” said Whitman. “We are grateful for the partnerships we have developed with the Chicago Blackhawks, the National Hockey League, and College Hockey, Inc., all of which have become true champions for this cause. We look forward to engaging with more people from across the state to generate the support necessary to make this project a reality.”

As for the realistic expectations on the funding side, Whitman and his department have done a great job of securing funding for improvements to the overall athlete experience already. Funding is strong for the $79 million project for the football performance center, announcing a $1 million donation just three days ago.

If anyone can get the funding needed to get the project off the ground, it is Whitman. Luckily, just like Penn State had a huge hockey-loving alumnus to fund its program, the Illini also have that potential in its alumni base.

Everything else seems to be in place for success of this project should they want to go forward. There’s plenty of in-state hockey participation, a lack of D1 hockey in the state and tradition with the sport at the university as we speak. That tradition may not be known outside the campus much though.

Club hockey is something taken very seriously at the University of Illinois and there’s a tradition of success for the program. The Illini have won two ACHA national championships since the formation of the organization in 1991 and is one of the perennial powers.

It’s a good building block for an upstart program to work from.

That building block was very important to the last Big Ten team to add varsity hockey to the mix — Penn State. It had a strong base to add scholarship players to thanks to its quality club level of hockey and stabilized the building of the program in the beginning.

Illinois 2017-18 club team sits at 28-9-0-2 as they head in to the national tournament following a second-round conference tournament exit at the hands of Lindenwood University late in February.

The Illini earned a No. 5 seed in the national tournament, and will take on No. 12 seed Jamestown in the 2nd round of the tournament this weekend.

It’s safe to say that the stars seem to be aligning that another Big Ten institution is smartly going to add hockey to its athletic offerings. What will be most interesting is to see if it will be just the men’s side or will the Illini also look to offer women’s hockey as well.

Let’s hope this recommendation is taken seriously, because Illinois is ripe to make an impact on the college hockey landscape and it would be a huge boost to the sport within the Big Ten ranks.

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Illini Basketball

Mark Smith’s one-and-done highlights long road ahead for Illini basketball

Mark Smith’s impending transfer highlights need for Illini to not rest on one big recruit as Underwood hopes to rebuild program.

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On Monday, the Fighting Illini’s coveted-2017-recruit turned regressing-freshman, Mark Smith, announced he would be leaving the program. The school has not put any restrictions on his release, but absent an unexpected waiver from the NCAA, he will have to sit out the 2018-19 season.

While disappointing, the news should not be a shocker to Illini faithful as last year’s Mr. Basketball in Illinois had seen a diminishing role starting in conference play back in December, with production only briefly resurfacing prior to the resumption of B1G play in January. Smith had not cracked double-digits in scoring since this Illini season’s lone moment of glory versus Mizzou.

In hindsight, it’s perhaps a blessing that Smith didn’t heat up even briefly in conference play, since his departure is only disrupting momentum fans wish Brad Underwood had started. Smith was considered a significant get for the first year coach. They lost Jeremiah Tilmon to Mizzou while ridding themselves of John Groce’s next-next-next-4-out monotony, but had at least snagged Smith and Trent Frazier, with even more highly regarded Ayo Dosunmu waiting in the wings.

As has been the rule rather than the exception for the last 10-plus years of Illini revenue sports, the plan did not go as hoped.

What’s past is past, and if Brad Underwood is to right the ship in Champaign, as many non-delusional people think he more likely-than-not will, Smith cannot come to be known as “the one that got away” in years three, four and beyond of Underwood’s tenure.

The lesson is easy to identify – don’t assume any one specific recruit will pan out, instead load up on every scrap of talent the trail will yield. Putting this lesson into practice is the hard part, only made more difficult by the fact that blue chips stay with a program for shorter, often 1-year, periods, than the last time the Illini were contending in the B1G.

Illinois’s glory years are too distant for direct memory with recruits, but the facilities, competition, and in-state talent make B1G contention a reasonable long-term benchmark.

While not a lot is leaving the Illini (beyond Smith, just Mark Alstork) so far, the next few months could have major ramifications on the trajectory of the Underwood-rebuild.

Retention of Leron Black is priority number one. He made significant development as a scorer, and was the only bright spot beside Trent Frazier on a team that went 4-14 in conference. If Black senses another season theme of “development”, testing the grad transfer market could be the prudent play for the fifth-year senior still seeking an NCAA Tournament appearance.

Whether or not Black goes, the transfer market does both giveth and taketh away, and the former is now more important than expected. Getting a skilled big to play the 4 or 5 is the only way Underwood can hope to spin next year as one with legitimate B1G credibility and tourney expectations. Let Smith be the exception, Trent and Ayo the rule.

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