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Gophers will face an Illinois team looking for answers

Each week, a reporter covering the Gophers’ opponent will be my guest to discuss his or her team. This week, it’s Bob Asmussen of the Champaign News-Gazette, who breaks down the Illini.



Q: The Lovie Smith era at Illinois hasn't produced a lot of success yet. Are fans getting restless and do you think Smith's job is in jeopardy this year?

A: Yes, the fans are getting restless. I hear it at our weekly radio show. Lots of griping about how he coaches the game. He sort of set himself up for that by winning the first two games this season, including an unexpectedly easy win against Western Kentucky. The last four losses have been lopsided, which has the negative local talk going even stronger.

But Smith is not in trouble with his bosses. And that's who really matters. He has the total backing of athletic director Josh Whitman and the administration. They realized this was not a quick fix and that's why they gave Smith a six-year deal worth $21 million total. Would they like it to speed up and look more competitive? Of course. But they are realistic about the team that Smith took over and how much needed to be done. Now, if they are 3-9 or worse in 2018, there might be some serious talk. But today and moving forward in the near future Smith's job is safe.

Q: How big a loss is running back Mike Epstein to the Illini offense?

A: Huge. Not only is he a terrific runner with great burst, he is also an effective receiver and capable blocker. And the rest of the guys on the team think the world of him.  Epstein is one of those put your head down and go to work kind of guys. His high school coach said he was the best he ever coached at Florida power St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale. That says a lot.

The Illini also had a nice mix with Epstein and fellow freshman Ra'Von Bonner. Nobody else is likely going to be able to fill Epstein's role. The run game was weak with Epstein and it doesn't look like it will get much better the rest of the way.

Q: How has Jeff George Jr. been progressing as the starting quarterback?

A: I covered his dad when he played at Illinois in 1989. Dad was great and Jeff Jr. is not his dad. But he has learned a lot from Sr. He doesn't have the same rocket arm, but he is very good. And like his dad, he isn't afraid to fire a pass into a tight space. Sometimes that gets him into trouble.

He is still young in the offense and will get better. Unlike his dad, he can run a little bit and doesn't mind doing it. Off the field, he is a great kid who has worked his butt off to get to this point. If he cuts his interceptions, he will be one of the best throwing quarterbacks in the Big Ten.

He is also working with less than a full set of tools at his disposal. He is missing Epstein and the offensive line is extremely young. The receivers are solid, but Mikey Dudek missed part of the Rutgers game and he is very important.

A lot of people thought the coaches waited too long to switch to George this season. I agree. Give him a few more games and he will be better.

Q: How does the Illini defense stack up after suffering multiple injuries at linebacker last week against Rutgers?

A: It's a shame defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson doesn't have any more eligibility because the team could use him. It sounds like some of the guys -- Dele Harding and Julian Jones to name two -- will be able to play at Minnesota. Otherwise, you will see a combination of young guys and walk-ons. Jimmy Marchese had nine tackles in his first significant time, but he made some mistakes. I credit him for trying. The defense was already young. With all of the injuries, there is even less experience on the field, which didn't seem possible.

Q: What is your prediction for Saturday's final score, and how did you arrive at it?

A: Minnesota 35, Illinois 17. Earlier in the year, I kept saying this would be a game Illinois might be able to take. But that changed when the team put up little fight against Rutgers, the worst team in the Big Ten. Too many injuries, too little confidence and a Gophers team that desperately needs a win is too much for Illinois to overcome. I don't think I will pick Illinois to win another game all season.

Depth chart doesn't say, but Illinois coach expects Croft to start

Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck remained noncommittal Tuesday about his quarterback for Saturday’s homecoming game, and the depth chart lists Conor Rhoda “or” Demry Croft as the starter.

Croft positioned himself to take over the job by passing for three fourth-quarter touchdowns in last week’s 30-27 loss to Michigan State after replacing an ineffective Rhoda in the second quarter. Fleck, however, will wait to reveal his decision.

“I want to continue to watch them perform,’’ he said, “and hopefully by [Wednesday] I’m narrowing it down closer.’’

Fleck complimented Croft, who saw his first action against Michigan State after serving a two-game disciplinary suspension.

“He played really sharp,’’ Fleck said. “He did great job of keeping the play alive.’’

But Fleck also credited Rhoda, saying, “If we don’t have Conor Rhoda the first three games, we don’t win the first three games.’’

Whichever quarterback starts, Fleck wants both available.

“We’ll possibly continue to play both of them at some point throughout the year, so we have to get them both ready,’’ he said. “They know that, and they’re handling it in a very mature way.’’

Illinois coach Lovie Smith said Monday that he expects to see Croft.

“They’ve played a couple different quarterbacks and ended up with the guy that we’ll probably see, which is a little bit different than the starter they’ve been playing most of the year,’’ Smith said.

Focus not on bowl

At 3-3, the Gophers need three more victories to gain bowl eligibility. But that’s not something Fleck is worried about now.

“I don’t mention it until you’re bowl-eligible. And then I probably mention it for 10 seconds and you move on,’’ he said. “If that’s going to be our only focus here, that’s not why I came. I came for something way bigger.’’

Mum on injuries

Fleck wouldn’t say if any injured players would return for the Illinois game. Tight end Brandon Lingen (ankle) and guard Vincent Calhoun (leg) left the Michigan State game but did not return.

“I’m not going to get into a lot of injuries and depth chart [discussion] much longer throughout the entire year because I’ve got to make some decisions,” Fleck said. “I’ve got to be able to be creative.’’

Depth chart notes

• With injuries hitting the secondary hard, Fleck said true freshman cornerback Justus Harris “is playing for sure’’ against Illinois.

• Redshirt freshman Mark Williams is listed at starter at wide receiver ahead of the injured Phillip Howard. Williams caught two passes for 43 yards against Michigan State.

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