Minnesota offense could pose problems

It’s safe to say the Illini were a different football team last season heading into a homecoming matchup with Minnesota at 3-2, coming off of a 45-20 blowout of Michigan.

But after a game-opening drive, in which Gopher quarterback Adam Weber and star receiver Eric Decker shredded through the Illini defense to lead 7-0, the Illini were never able to pull even.

By the end of the hot, sticky October afternoon on which they endured a 27-20 loss, the Illini’s fortunes were turned around.

“We feel like we were definitely the better team last year,” linebacker Ian Thomas said. “We should have won.”

The defeat began a stretch of 10 losses in 13 games, which plagued the Illini until last week’s romp over Michigan.

“That was a terrible game,” offensive tackle Jeff Allen said of the Homecoming loss.

“I had a bad game, personally. I’m just looking forward to going into that game and having a good game, and that’s coming out with a win.”

The Illini will look for another reversal of fortune Saturday in Minneapolis.

This time, they won’t have Decker to worry about after the senior suffered a season-ending foot injury against Ohio State. But the Gophers offense seems to be getting better rather than worse, scoring a season-high 42 points last Saturday against Michigan State.

The Minnesota offensive line is one of the biggest in the Big Ten, if not the nation, with 6-foot-7, 365 pound tackle Jeff Wills, who came to Minnesota out of junior college, and guard Matt Carufel, who transferred from Notre Dame, bolstering the right side.

“Their offensive line is pretty massive,” Illini defensive tackle Josh Brent said. “They have a very, almost like a pro-style offense with that offensive line. (Quarterback Adam) Weber has a lot of time back there … They provide a huge challenge, different from last week but still a huge challenge for us.”

But even with the giant line, Weber struggled early in the season. The junior has thrown 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and has been sacked 19 times, good for fourth most in the Big Ten. But he rebounded last week, throwing for five touchdowns and one interception, as the Gophers beat the Spartans, 42-34.

“How can you lose your best player, and arguably the best player in the league, and still have 500 yards of offense? I think the thing is that we knew who they were going to go to in the other games. Now, you don’t know where they’re going,” Illini head coach Ron Zook said.

Unfortunately the Illini secondary has allowed the third most passing yards per game in the Big Ten.

The Illini defense also must be wary of athletic redshirt freshman MarQueis Gray, who has played in all nine of the Gophers’ games this season.

Illini quarterback Juice Williams hopes to turn around his season much like Weber has, after having one of his better statistical days of the season last Saturday against Michigan.

“(Williams) is fast enough to run away from us, and he has a good arm, so hopefully we can make him make some mistakes and take advantage of them,” Minnesota defensive back Kim Royston said.

And, of course, every time the Illini play the Gophers, there is the angle of former Illini Tim Brewster.

The Minnesota head coach was an All-Big Ten selection at tight end during both of his two years in Champaign and was a leading candidate to land the Illinois head coaching position that eventually went to Zook.

“Their head coach, he wanted to be here,” Illini defensive tackle Corey Liuget said. “He wanted the job, but coach Zook got it, and you know that he’s going to have his guys fired up.”