Fighting the Fighting Illini: Previewing the Minnesota Golden Gophers


Illinois football host its last home game of the season this weekend as Minnesota visits for Senior Day.

After a heartbreaking loss in triple overtime to Michigan last weekend, the Illini are still one win away from becoming bowl eligible in 2010.

Illinois could not ask for a better opportunity to do so then at Memorial Stadium against Minnesota.

The Golden Gophers are dealing with a nightmare of a season and could be just what the doctor ordered for an Illini team looking to prove it belongs in the top half of the Big Ten.

How Minnesota Has Fared This Season

Illinois fans can sympathize with how Minnesota fans must be feeling in 2010.

Coming off a decent but not stellar 2009 season during which the Golden Gophers went 6-7, expectations were high in Minneapolis.

Senior quarterback Adam Weber was returning and poised to set a school record for passing yards and the team, while not a top four candidate, looked capable of competing for a decent bowl bid.

For a team from an automatic qualifying conference, Minnesota started out the season in a bizarre fashion, against Middle Tennessee State on the road, where a fourth-quarter comeback secured a seven-point win.

However, it was all downhill from there for the Gophers.

They lost their home opener to FCS team South Dakota, with the loss seemingly putting the team in an inescapable funk, similar to what the Missouri loss did to the Illini last season.

Minnesota lost to USC and Northern Illinois at home, and almost beat Northwestern, but fell just short in a one-point loss.

Things have not gotten any better for the Gophers. They have lost nine straight games, and only two of the losses, Northwestern and South Dakota, have been by single digits.

After the Penn State loss, Minnesota fired its head coach, former Illini tight end Tim Brewster.

Minnesota has lost both of games with former defensive coordinator Jeff Horton filling in as interim head coach.

At 1-9, the Golden Gophers already are out of bowl contention, but Weber is still having an impressive senior year and the team would love to play spoiler to Illinois after losing to the Illini at home last season.

Illinois – Minnesota History

The Golden Gophers currently hold a narrow lead in the series over the Fighting Illini.

The Illini are 28-32-3 all time against Minnesota.

The last two matchups have both been intense games that were not decided until the final play.

In 2008, Minnesota visited Champaign to take on the Illini for their homecoming game.

The Gophers went up early, but a furious fourth-quarter comeback by the Illini fell just short when an Illinois Hail Mary pass was batted down in the end zone, allowing Minnesota to escape with a 27-20 win.

In 2009, Illinois exacted its revenge when it visited the newly constructed TCF stadium.

Illinois took a big lead going into the half, but when senior quarterback Juice Williams was injured, the Gophers edged their way back into the game.

Illinois held on for a thrilling 35-32 win.

This year, Illinois is the clear favorite, but Weber is not a quarterback to be underestimated.

Hopefully the Illini defense can plug the holes that opened the floodgates to all of the scoring last weekend against Michigan.

Key Matchups

Adam Weber vs. Illinois Secondary

The Big Ten’s second leading passer will take aim at a defense that allowed more than 400 yards through the air against Michigan.

Illinois had been solid up to that game on defense, and when the conference’s leading passer, Ben Chappell, came to Champaign, the Illini dominated him.

They will need to do the same to Weber in order to get back on track.

Mikel Leshoure vs. Minnesota Defensive Line

Minnesota is currently ranked 106th in the nation in rush defense, allowing more than 200 yards per game on the ground.

Leshoure had a huge second half at Michigan, scoring five touchdowns after leaving the field in the first half with a slight injury.

Leshoure could have a career game against Minnesota.

If the Illini can go up early in the first half, Leshoure could easily get more than 25 carries.

Nathan Scheelhaase vs. Minnesota Pass Rush

Scheelhaase has emerged as the front runner for freshman of the year in the conference.

Scheelhaase should have another big game against Minnesota, both through the air and on the ground, but he must be sure to avoid the pass rush when it comes.

Minnesota will surely try to pressure the quarterback after seeing how Michigan handled the final play of last weekend’s game.

If Scheelhaase can move the pocket and stay on his feet long enough to get some deep passes off, the pressure should lessen and allow for more movement on the ground.

Three Players To Watch

Mikel Leshoure

Leshoure had a great game against Michigan with his 5 touchdowns, tied for 4th most in a single game in the history of the Big Ten.

However, he only had 120 yards on the ground.

While those numbers are normally nothing to scoff at, the fact he had 3 additional overtimes to buff his stats makes it slightly skewed, though impressive nonetheless.

Against Minnesota, Leshoure could reach 150 yards on the ground if he can break out some big runs that were there at the beginning of this season.

Nathan Scheelhaase

There is of course the pressure that comes with being the leading candidate for freshman of the year, but Scheelhaase has already proven that he can more than handle it.

The redshirt freshman continues to play with the intelligence and big play ability of an upperclassman, and he possesses the uncanny ability to get the first down when a play looks as if it has fallen apart.

Martez Wilson

Wilson continues his stellar senior season.

After nabbing his first collegiate interception against Michigan, the linebacker will try to lead the defense back to its dominant ways before last weekend.

The Illinois defense had climbed up to 15th in the nation before Michigan, and you can bet after a week of people questioning this unit, Wilson and his teammates are itching to get back on the field and prove that they are indeed a top 20 defensive unit.