Illini travel to Minnesota to lock up bowl bid

By Mike Theodore

This Saturday the Illini will try to do something they haven’t done since 1994 – beat Minnesota on the road.

The Illini return to Big Ten action this week against the bottom dweller of the conference. The Golden Gophers are losers of their last seven, which includes a 27-21 loss at home to North Dakota State two weeks ago.

The Gophers are in their first year of rebuilding. Tim Brewster, former Illinois tight end and captain of the 1984 Rose Bowl team, took the reins of the Gopher program in January and is in his first season as a collegiate head coach.

“They’re probably way ahead of where we were our first year,” Zook said at his weekly Tuesday press conference. “I’m impressed with the improvements they’ve made.”

Brewster took over for former coach Glen Mason after the Gophers blew a 35-7 halftime lead in last season’s Insight Bowl, which they went on to lose. The Gophers returned 18 of 25 starters this season but will miss the postseason for the first time since the 2001 season.

The Gopher offense is averaging an impressive 415.2 yards per game and is scoring 27.6 points per contest. But against the two taut defenses of Michigan and Ohio State, the Gopher offense combined for just 10 points.

Freshman quarterback Adam Weber leads the Gopher attack and has rewritten the Minnesota freshman record books. His 19 touchdown passes are four shy of the all-time single season mark for Gopher quarterbacks. Only Central Michigan and Illinois native Dan LeFevour has both rushed and thrown for more yards than Weber.

“(Weber) gets it done,” Zook said. “He’s taken some hits and keeps on going. From the toughness standpoint he reminds me a lot of Juice. He’s got a very, very quick release just like the guy we saw with Ball State.”

Despite the offensive success, the Gophers have struggled in large part because of their defense, which ranks last in conference in passing, rushing, scoring and total defense. Minnesota is giving up 37.1 points and 536.7 yards per game.

The Illini defense is 10th in the nation with 30 sacks and should be able to pressure the young quarterback. The Minnesota offensive line is last in the league with 60 sacks allowed. Illinois tallied four sacks last weekend facing a mobile Ball State quarterback in Nate Davis. Defensive ends Will Davis and Doug Pilcher each added key sacks in the victory.

With last week’s homecoming victory the Illini became bowl eligible for the first time since 2001, but being eligible does not guarantee a bowl berth. A seventh win would help separate the Illini from Northwestern and other teams that will probably become bowl eligible with a sixth victory.

Injury update

Receiver Kyle Hudson (foot), defensive lineman Derek Walker (ankle) and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (back) were held out of Monday’s practice as they recuperate from their individual injuries. All three players did not play last week.

“I would be shocked if (Hoomanawanui) is not playing (Saturday),” Zook said.