Game Preview: Gophers Look to Go 5-0 on Homecoming
Homecoming week at the University of Minnesota is always exciting, with the drinking, partying, boozing, craziness, bars, young college kids jumping off top of houses, you name it. But the one thing that might trounce all those things is the Golden Gopher football team.
They are coming off an impressive road win last weekend against the Purdue Boilermakers and are now 4-0 overall and 1-0 in the Big Ten. They will now be taking on a struggling Illinois team and could improve to 5-0!
Winning this upcoming Saturday’s game versus Illinois seems likely. Minnesota holds the edge all time against Illinois leading the series 38-30-3 and has won three of the last four meetings, including three straight at TCF Bank Stadium. On top of that, the Gophers are coming into the game on fire. They are 4-0 for the first time since 2013 and have now won six straight games dating back to last season, the first time they have done so since 2003-04.
As the Gophers come in hot, the Illini come into the game cold as ice. Illinois is coming off a bye week that was probably much-needed on their end. They have lost their last two games after starting the season 2-0. They lost to the Nebraska Cornhuskers 42-38 in a game they lead 21-7 and 35-21. The week before, they suffered an embarrassing loss at home to Eastern Michigan out of the Mid-American Conference.
Despite trash talking Illinois as a complete trash team (as they deserve to be), they do bring in some skill and talent the Gophers need to watch and prepare for. One thing to note is that Illinois has scored 30 or more points in its first four games, proving this team can score.
Transfer quarterback from Michigan, Brandon Peters has been a big part of that scoring trend with 765 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season. He has heavily utilized wideouts Rick Smelling, who leads the team with 200 receiving yards, and Josh Imatorbhebhe, who leads the team with four touchdowns. On top of that, running back Reggie Corbin has over 300 yards in only three games. That is quite impressive for a team like Illinois!
In addition, Illinois’ defense has been dangerous this season. They are third in the country with seven recovered fumbles, and forced four fumbles alone against Nebraska.
It is Minnesota’s game to win at home, on homecoming for sure! But it might not be as easy one would think against this Illini team. Here are the Gophers keys to the game.
1. Tanner Morgan, keep on throwing my friend!
Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan has been absolutely stunning this season. He has completed over 73 percent of his passes and ranks 11th in the country in completion percentage.
We saw this pinpoint accuracy last week against Purdue when he completed his first 12 passes and finished 21 of 22, which set a record for the highest completion percentage in any game by a Big Ten player. And, rightfully so, he was named Big Ten Co-Offensive player of the week for his performance. If he continues to throw like he did in that game, not only will the Gophers defeat Illinois, they will dominate a majority of their schedule and could go on for a record season.
I was worried last week when the running game was not working. I knew we were probably going to have to throw the ball to win the game. And knowing how our quarterbacks have been in recent years, I was not very confident relying on the pass game.
But man, was Tanner Morgan on point with every throw. Morgan makes you feel more comfortable knowing that if the running goes nowhere, we have a solid quarterback that can actually make passes and open up the field to get the run game going, and ultimately win the game.
Throwing just short of 400 yards a week ago and now totaling almost 1,100 pass yards on the season, Morgan can keep building those stats on the pace he is playing. Another accurate game for Morgan against a poor Illinois defense will lead to a 5-0 start for the Golden Gophers.
2. Defense wins games
As the title of this section states, “DEFENSE WINS GAMES.” That is totally true. But the worry here is the Gophers defense has been a bit spotty this season.
As the offense is scoring almost 35 points per game, the defense has allowed almost 30 points per game through its first four games. That average has to start trending downward as the season progresses, and it has to start against Illinois, or else Minnesota will have a tough time moving forward.
We saw last week against Purdue how inconsistent the defense can be. Within a span of about 3 minutes, the Gophers 21-point lead diminished to only seven points. The defense only allowed 17 points through three and a half quarters, and then in the final quarter, it seems they did the opposite to what a defense is supposed to do. Missed reads, tackles, adjustments, etc. This allowed Purdue to get back in the game.
To be exact, Minnesota's defense allowed 150 plus yards in the last half the fourth quarter. If the Gophers had anything short of a three-touchdown lead, Minnesota’s hype of being undefeated may have been dust.
The defense will have to play with more conviction even against a team like Illinois, whose offense has struggled at times this season, but is still averaging over 35 points per game. And as stated before, Illinois' running back, Reggie Corbin has rushed for over 300 yards in just three games. Minnesota’s defense will need to stop him early and keep him down the entire game to be successful.
There have been many instances in the first four games where the defense played extremely well, but there have been other points where the defense collapsed, allowing the opponent to get back in the game.
If the Gophers ultimately want a victory, the defense will have to play a full 60 minutes no matter what the score is going into the fourth quarter. We need more consistency out of this group going forward.
3. A message to the Offensive Line: keep holding it up!
This is probably the fifth time I wrote about the offensive line so far this year, but I think it is important. The O-line is a vital part of a football team and can decide games. And this part of the team has been played poorly and inconsistent at times.
The Gophers O-line seem to come into the Purdue game much improved after the bye week. They were holding up blocks, and 6' 9" Australian Super lineman, Daniel Faalele was actually stonewalling guys on the outside corners and looked quicker than he did in the first three games.
The O-line allowed four sacks in its last game versus Purdue which was one less than it did in the Georgia Southern game, and it also allowed eight TFL in the Purdue game, three less allowed compared to the previous game. Those numbers are still high, but it trended downward from the prior game, which was against a less talented GSU team.
But I feel like it is hard to determine how good an offensive line is by stats. I think you can see how good it is by simply watching the O-line play and seeing how well the center, guards and tackles make blocks, create space and hold the pocket for the quarterback. And last week, I definitely saw an improved O-line hold its own, and guess what, WE WON! And especially knowing that this Illinois defense can produce fumbles, the O-line will definitely need to step up to protect our quarterback and create the proper space for the running backs.
If the O-line can come out strong and improve on a performance from last week, they will allow the running game and passing game to open up, which will lead to more scoring and send the Illini back home with a loss.
It is definitely invigorating to think the Gophers could be 5-0 after seeing how the season started with such close victories against some bad teams. But as I have said before, the best teams find a way to win.
And Fleck seems to be figuring something out. Just keep on winning! At this point, I don’t care how ugly it looks. A win is a win. As long as we remain undefeated, I will be ecstatic.
Row the Boat, Ski-U-Mah, Go Gophers!