Illinois football travels to Minneapolis, searches for first win in Minnesota since 2014

Running+back+Josh+McCray+runs+past+his+Maryland+opponent+Sept.+17.+Illinois+travels+to+Minneapolis+to+face+Minnesota+on+Saturday+at+11+a.m.

Photo Courtesy of Illini Athletics

Running back Josh McCray runs past his Maryland opponent Sept. 17. Illinois travels to Minneapolis to face Minnesota on Saturday at 11 a.m.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

The Illini football team will travel to Minneapolis to face Minnesota on Saturday at 11 a.m. Minnesota is 6-2 on the season and is currently on a four-game winning streak.

Meanwhile, Illinois is 3-6 and still licking its wounds from a narrow 20-14 loss to Rutgers on Dads Weekend. The week prior, the Illini had beaten No. 7 Penn State, a high water mark for the season. However, Illinois has struggled mightily at stringing together consistent performances despite bright moments throughout the season. 

“I would say the thing that consistently has been a little bit of an issue has just been playing a four-quarter game,” said head coach Bret Bielema. “Being consistent and, obviously — no pun intended — the Penn State game was four quarters and beyond. It’s just been every one of these (games), especially the close games, a lot has been talked about four games that we’ve been a score (away from) winning it. A lot of those games have been 50, 55, 58 minutes of good football for us. Football that can put you in a winning position, but we can’t put ourselves over the top in the most critical moments.”

Last season, Illinois faced Minnesota at home and got blown out, 41-14, so this matchup will prove challenging with a mostly similar Illini roster. Construction-wise, Minnesota is a team that’s been phenomenal on the lines, both offensively and defensively. The Golden Gophers rank second in the Big Ten in both rushing yards per game and rushing yards allowed per game. 

“One of the key things that jumped out to me is that they’re one of the only Power-5 teams that are top 15 in rush offense and rush defense,” Bielema said. “That says something to me. That’s not a very common trait. That jumps off pretty good.”

As Minnesota’s record suggests, it is a good team all around. The Golden Gophers’ biggest weakness might be their passing game, which ranks third to last in the Big Ten at 147.8 yards per game. Illinois struggled to contain the run last week against Rutgers, but the focus will certainly be there this week. 

And, Illinois will be on the road, which has seemingly worked out for them recently.

“You know, again, really home and away, I just mentioned that it’s been my experience a lot of times that a team, when it takes the road, has a little bit of a different personality, and ours has been a positive one,” Bielema said. “I think we really looked after that Virginia game at how we wanted to play the game and how we wanted to approach things, so that’s been there.”

Defensively, Minnesota has been less stringent against the pass, ranking seventh in the Big Ten with 210.3 passing yards allowed per game. Illinois QB1 Brandon Peters is coming off of his first week in which he’s been the team’s clear starter since he got hurt in game 1, and it seems that the clarity may be helping.

Peters went 14/19 for 190 yards and two touchdowns last weekend, easily his best outing of the season. Peters will need to step it up even further against Minnesota for the game to remain competitive. 

Bielema also mentioned that he expects Illinois to have an almost entirely healthy roster this weekend. Last weekend, running back Josh McCray was battling a nagging injury of some sort that held him to a minor role in the game. Against Penn State, McCray had 142 rushing yards on 24 attempts. 

@WesHollenberg

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