When: Saturday, Oct. 29; noon ET
Where: Champaign, Ill.; Memorial Stadium (60,670)
All-Time Series: Minnesota leads 36-29-3
Last Meeting: Minnesota won 32-23 (2015)
Line: Minnesota (-5)
Nothing says Big Ten West like a supposedly sleepy late October matchup between the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Minnesota Gophers, huh?
Don’t let that perception fool you though, because this game is very important to the Gophers who are looking at bowl eligibility with a win. It also would keep their hopes in the Big Ten West division alive too.
As for the Illini, this game is as close to must-win as possible, especially if Lovie Smith wants to take anything positive from his crazy first season at the helm of this program. Can either side get what they want in this early matchup?
1 Burning Question: Who Will Play at QB for the Illini?
Wes Lunt appears healthy for the Illini, but the depth chart lists not one, but three potential starting quarterbacks for this matchup against the Gophers. Could it be sophomore Chayce Crouch or freshman Jeff George Jr.?
Let’s just say the only mystery here is just how healthy Lunt is, because Crouch and George have been downright awful behind center in their opportunities so far this season. George went just 4 of 15 for 95 yards and a touchdown against Michigan, while Crouch is just 18 of 32 for 249 yards and one touchdown to one interception.
Not exactly the stuff of confidence-building for a team needing a big shot in the arm on the offensive side of the football. So, if Lunt is even close to ready, you better believe he should be starting for the here and now.
2 Key Stats:
— 8. That is the number of fumble recoveries the Illini have in 2016. It also happens to lead the Big Ten and rank inside the top 10 nationally. Minnesota has had some issues with fumbling the football, coughing it up seven times but only losing three of them. If the Illini want to win, it has to find a way to make the Gophers turn the ball over and the stats suggest that is wholly possible.
—1. That is the number of first half touchdowns the Gophers have allowed in Big Ten play. If one is wondering how an offensively inconsistent team like Minnesota can still have five wins to its name, this would be one huge reason. Teams tend to dig themselves holes they can’t get out of by being shut out in the first half. In fact, the Gophers have allowed a grand total of 16 points to Big Ten teams in the first half all season long and just 44 points to all teams on the year. So, if Illinois wants to win…it better find a way to do something most teams haven’t been able to do — score in the first half.
3 Key Players:
Damarius Travis, Minnesota S: Few safeties have been as big of a ball hawk as Travis has in the back of the Gophers defense. However, he is also equally impressive against the run and that is where he may be needed most in this game. That’s because the Illini have some big play running backs in their backfield. Travis is going to likely need to be on his game in space, making one-on-one tackles for the Gophers to stay in this game. Opponents are rushing for just 3.7 yards per game against the Gophers, and Travis has been a help in that area.
Kendric Foster, Illinois RB: One way to combat the inability of opponents to score in the first half? Try a big play running back like Kendric Foster. The team has four runs of over 50 yards on the season and Foster had a pair of them against Murray State. He also is adept at not losing yards, only losing eight yards all season long and gaining 429 yards on 70 carries so far this season. While slugging it out on the ground could be to Minnesota’s advantage in terms of the tempo, Foster is the best weapon Illinois has and needs to test that Gophers rush defense.
Mitch Leidner, Minnesota QB: After sitting out the Maryland game, Leidner was back in against Rutgers last week. However, he wasn’t exactly a game-changer in terms of passing with just 11 completions (on 18 attempts) for 156 yards and an interception. For a senior, Leidner still struggles to get himself or his team going unless it’s a critical situation. He’s only passed for over 200 yards twice this season and has five touchdowns to five interceptions. Illinois defense has been prone to a few big plays in the passing game, but Leidner may be most useful in this game on the ground, where he has four touchdowns and 181 yards on 47 carries for the year.
4 Staff Predictions:
Andy: Minnesota 31-10
Dave: Minnesota 24-17
Phil H.: Minnesota 27-20
Philip R-R.: Minnesota 27-17
Zach: Minnesota 28-24