When the Gophers kick off at Illinois on Saturday, they should be ready for some last-minute adjustments, if the Illini’s game against Purdue this past weekend is any indication.
Illinois dropped game-altering news just before the 31-24 loss to the Boilermakers, saying the team would be without 14 players, including starting quarterback Brandon Peters, who had tested positive for COVID-19.
“More and more positive tests are popping up everywhere [around the country],” coach Lovie Smith said Monday. “We test every morning. We continue to talk to our guys about social distancing, washing their hands, keeping their masks on. All those things. And we just hope we continue to be lucky.”
Missing 14 players from COVID-19 (positive tests or contact-tracing) might not seem fortunate, but it is in comparison to the 22 positive cases on Wisconsin, where Illinois traveled in Week 1.
Beyond Peters, tight end Griffin Moore and one non-coach staff member, the Illini have had no more positive results, per a Chicago Tribune report. Peters and Moore first tested positive six days after playing the Badgers, but it’s hard to know if that’s how they caught the virus.
Seven of those 14 absent players were out because of contact tracing, including backup quarterback Isaiah Williams. All will still be out for the Gophers game, with Peters and Moore set to miss 21 days per Big Ten policy.
Against Purdue, Smith started third-string QB Matt Robinson, who promptly left the game because of an ankle injury. That left fourth-stringer Coran Taylor in charge, and he went 17-of-29 for 233 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
“We can’t afford to have another group of players out,” Smith said.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said he’s relying on the Big Ten’s policies and communication should the status of Saturday’s game change if more positive cases emerge on the Illini. And that leaves his mind free to game-plan for a different-than-expected opponent.
Taylor, a sophomore, garnered praise from pundits about the heart he showed despite underwhelming stats. With the depth issues, Illinois spread out its carries and receptions, which will give the Gophers several players to watch for, from running back Chase Brown to receiver Brian Hightower.
Both the Gophers and Illinois are 0-2, seeking to pull their early seasons out of a nose-dive after demoralizing losses. The Gophers have also battled presumed COVID-19 absences, especially on special teams, where the team is still without its starting punter and kickoff specialist, leaving two still-hobbled field goal kickers and a recent transfer punter to pick up the slack.
Illinois’ defense and the Gophers’ offense are both middling. The Gophers average 388.5 yards per game, mostly from Big Ten-leading rusher Mohamed Ibrahim’s 347 yards and six touchdowns through two games. Illinois grants opponents about 443 yards per game.
But the Illini have the Big Ten’s worst offense, averaging just 15.5 points per game with an average of 345 yards per game.
And the Gophers sport the worst defense, averaging 578 allowed offensive yards and an average of 47 points per game.
What happens when the conference’s most inefficient offense meets the conference’s most porous defense will play out Saturday afternoon.
“We’re excited to go against this team,” Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan said of facing Illinois. “Excited to have an opportunity to respond.”
Star Tribune staff writer Marcus Fuller contributed to this report.