The Gophers have a chance to get into the win column this weekend, with Minnesota facing a depleted Illinois team. Illini quarterback Brandon Peters is out until at least the November 21 game after a positive COVID test. Tight end Griffin Moore is in the same situation. A total of 14 players missed the Purdue game on Halloween due to either injuries or contact tracing; the school does not specify which applies to individual players. This, of course, makes it difficult to guess at the lineup that will face the Gophers. In addition, quarterback Matt Robinson, starting in place of Peters, was injured on the team’s first drive against Purdue; there’s no word yet on his status, either.
Can the Minnesota Defense Get on Track?
A game against second- or third-string quarterback could be a blessing for the Gophers’ anemic defense. Currently ranked 102nd out of 103 FBS teams, to say they’ve struggled would be an understatement. Maryland – the same Maryland that had its doors blown off by Northwestern- rolled up 675 yards of total offense.
But the Illini won’t be a pushover. Yes, they were thumped soundly by Wisconsin in week one, but the Badgers are good. Against Purdue, with their third quarterback playing most of the game, the Illini threw 33 times for 295 yards and two touchdowns, although Coran Taylor added two picks. While the Gophers’ backfield has been giving up big plays. Add that to a pass rush that’s lacking and you have a recipe for… well, for what Maryland and Michigan did.
Minnesota hasn’t fared much better against the run, allowing nearly 280 yards per game on the ground. Illinois doesn’t have a stable of ball-carriers like Michigan does, or a Jake Funk, but whether that matters or not remains to be seen.
Let’s Be Positive
Now that you are probably down (unless you’re an Illinois fan), let’s look at some of the good things the Gophers have done. The offense really started clicking against Maryland. Mohamed Ibrahim was doing Mohamed Ibrahim things, with 207 rushing yards and four(!) touchdowns. Tanner Morgan looked better than he did against Michigan, and the offensive line was able to give him a bit more time in the pocket. The passing game isn’t what it was last season, but a new offensive coordinator combined with the lack of normal off-season prep certainly accounts for some of that. (Tyler Johnson being in the NFL this season does too). As long as they continue to improve each week, it’s not worth panicking. Save that for the defense.
Special Teams Issues Continue
We aren’t going to pile on kicker Brock Walker, because when you give up 675 yards of offense, you cannot blame the kicker for a loss. Full stop. That goes double when the guy is technically your backup kicker, AND he’s coming off hernia surgery. Walker did make his one field goal attempt, and all five other PATs. Starting kicker Michael Lantz was back and handling kickoffs in place of Grant Ryerse, and that was a big improvement. The punting, still being done by holder Matthew Stephenson, continues to be an issue. No word yet on when Ryerse or punter Mark Crawford could return.
Even with Minnesota facing a depleted Illinois team, their winless start could continue. The Gopher defense is struggling against both the pass and the run, their own passing game needs to keep improving, and they continue to be hurt by special teams. In short, this is not the 2019 Minnesota squad, don’t expect anything like their 40-17 win over the Illini last season.