Minnesota has a golden opportunity to notch its first win of the season on Saturday when it travels to Illinois to face a team decimated by COVID-19 protocols.
Led by quarterback Tanner Morgan, the Golden Gophers (0-2) have taken a big step back from their 11-2 dream season in 2019.
They are last in the FBS with an average of 9.48 yards per play allowed. They were 10th nationally last season in total defense and have forced only two punts in two games, a 49-24 loss to Michigan and a 45-44 loss to Maryland.
"We have a lot of really good players," Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. "They are just inexperienced and they are getting experience right now, especially in a COVID season. You usually benefit from all that offseason work, but everybody is in the same boat right now. We got to find a way to be better."
Illinois coach Lovie Smith recognizes how important Saturday's game is to Illinois (0-2). The Illini were crushed by Wisconsin 45-7 in the season opener, and lost 31-24 to Purdue last week.
"Obviously it's a game we need to win," Smith said. "If you look at what they've done offensively both games, they played really good offense. Haven't played as well defensively, but offensively continue to move the ball on everyone."
ILLINI COVID WOES
Illinois starting QB Brandon Peters remains out after testing positive for COVID-19 prior to last week's loss. His backup, Isaiah Washington, is also presumed out due to contact testing protocols. At least 12 Illinois players are expected to miss the Minnesota game, including placekicker James McCourt.
Look for fourth-stringer Coran Taylor, who showed some talent against Purdue, to see considerable playing time again after Matt Robinson (third on the team's QB depth chart) left that game early with an apparent ankle injury. Robinson's status was unclear for Saturday.
GOPHERS COACH POSITIVE
Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi tested positive for this week COVID-19 and will not coach during Saturday's game. No other members of Minnesota's coaching staff have tested positive for COVID-19 during the team's daily antigen testing this week, team officials said. In Rossi's absence, defensive special teams coach Joe Harasymiak will call the defense.
The most positive trend for the Gophers in contrast to their early struggles has been the production of running back Mohamed Ibrahim, the junior who took over as the featured ball-carrier after the departure of sixth-year senior Rodney Smith.
Ibrahim, who led the team in rushing in 2018 when Smith was injured, leads the Big Ten in attempts, yards and touchdowns. Ibrahim had a career-high 41 carries for 207 yards against Maryland last week, with four scores in the first half.
"He is one of the hardest workers on the team, and nobody would ever argue that," receiver Seth Green said. "I think that's why we all love Mo so much. It's not only his talents but his work ethic."
DEFENDING THE D
Two years ago, a string of lopsided losses for Minnesota marked by leaky defense led to the firing of defensive coordinator Robb Smith. Rossi helped engineer a remarkable turnaround midway through the 2018 season that continued in 2019. Even with Rossi out this week, Fleck's not sweating the leadership on that side of the ball.
"I think Joe Ross is an unbelievable coordinator. I think he's one of the best football coaches I've ever been around: X's and O's, the way he teaches, the way he demands, the way he cares, the way he loves his players, the way players love him," Fleck said. "It's a challenge. We knew that from the start."
HE SAID IT
"They've suffered two losses just like we have. I'm hoping they get our best shot, and I'm sure we're expecting to get their best shot." — Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith.