Just two weeks after knocking off No. 6 Penn State in Happy Valley, the Illinois football team (3-6) has another opportunity to defeat a ranked opponent on the road when visiting the No. 20 Minnesota Golden Gophers (6-2) in Minneapolis on Saturday.
Sitting with a record of 3-6, the Illini must win its last three games in order to be eligible to compete in a bowl game following the regular season.
Does the Illinois football team have a legitimate shot to knock off the Gophers to keep its bowl eligibility hopes alive?
The most noteworthy strength of this Gophers team is its stout defense. Minnesota is not allowing opposing offenses to produce much, holding its opponents to just 303.1 total yards per game, ranking No. 11 of all 130 NCAA DI teams.
Minnesota’s front-seven has played a key role in the defensive success, as they are only allowing their opponents to rush for just 92.9 yards per contest, which ranks among the nation’s top eight defenses.
This unit is led by senior linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin, who leads the team with 53 total tackles, 28 of these being solo tackles. The senior backer has broken up two passes, picked off a pass, and forced a fumble as well.
Another Gopher defender the Illini will need to contain is senior defensive lineman Boye Mafe. Mafe has been a problem for opposing offensive tackles considering he has had no problem getting to the quarterback this season, recording a team-high six sacks on the year. Mafe’s six sacks rank among the nation’s top 20.
Illini offensive tackle Vederian Lowe – who just broke a record with 49 career starts – will have his hands full when going against the Gopher’s senior edge-rusher on Saturday.
How can the Illini overcome the Gopher’s robust defensive unit?
If the Orange and Blue want any shot at winning this Saturday, they will need to find a way to have success against Minnesota’s defense. Fortunately for the Illini, its greatest strength is its run game.
The Illini rushing force is led by the duo of sophomore Chase Brown and freshman Joshua McCray.
Brown, the Illini’s primary back, has ran for a team-high 704 yards on 111 total attempts this season, averaging another team-high 6.3 yards per attempt. In addition, the sophomore back has carried in four touchdowns for the Orange and Blue on the year, which leads the team.
Sitting just behind Brown in the rushing cabinet is McCray, who has ran for 482 total yards on 91 season attempts.
The duo of Brown and McCray was put on full display during the Illini’s upset at Penn State with the two combining for 365 total rushing yards on the day. Brown led the way, rushing for 223 yards and a touchdown. McCray contributed significantly, as well, with 142 rushing yards. Their 365 yards accounted for 92.4% of the Illini’s total yards in the win.
If Illinois can get anywhere close to this sort of production from its rush attack, then they could have a real shot at walking out of Huntington Bank Stadium victorious.
The Illini’s run game is strong, but the Gopher’s run defense is just a tad stronger.
Minnesota avoids the upset and ends Illinois’ chances of bowl eligibility with a 27-24 defeat of the Illini.