Two 0-2 teams in the Big Ten West seek their first win. The Gophers’ conference-worst defense meets Illinois, the conference’s lowest-scoring offense. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has dramatically impacted both, making this outcome a real tossup. Prediction: Illinois 30, Gophers 24
THREE BIG STORY LINES
The Gophers will be without defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, who tested positive for COVID-19 this week, and already had several players absent for either injury or COVID issues. Illinois had 14 players unavailable because of injury or COVID-19 in its most recent game, including starting quarterback Brandon Peters.
Without Rossi, co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Joe Harasymiak will call the game, something he did as a d-coordinator and head coach at Maine from 2014-18. But the Gophers have allowed an average of 578 yards through two games and struggled with young and inexperienced players on the field.
Pass the ball
While the Gophers have joked in the past that RTB doesn’t stand for coach P.J. Fleck’s “Row the Boat” culture but instead “Run the Ball,” the team’s heavy reliance on the ground game hasn’t helped it win. Putting quarterback Tanner Morgan and receivers Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell to better use will be key.
TWO KEY MATCHUPS
Mohamed Ibrahim vs. the world
While everyone else on his team has struggled — from a stalled passing game to a porous defense to an inconsistent special teams unit — the running back has been nothing but steady. He leads the Big Ten with 67 carries through two games, and 173.5 rushing yards per contest. He’s put his team on his back. He’ll likely do so again.
Coran Taylor vs. himself
The fourth-string quarterback found himself playing his first significant college minutes after Peters tested positive for COVID-19, backup Isaiah Williams went out for contact tracing and third-stringer Matt Robinson exited the Purdue game early with an injury. Taylor wasn’t perfect, making two costly interceptions, but he impressed many with his no-fear approach, going 17-of-29 for 273 yards and two scores. He could be even better with a full week to prepare.
ONE STAT THAT MATTERS
4: The career-high number of touchdowns in a single game for Ibrahim, which also matched a Gophers’ record for rushing scores. Those all came in the first half. He has six total scores so far this season.
THE GOPHERS WILL WIN IF …
The defense dramatically improves. Illinois isn’t known for its offensive prowess, so this is a game where the Gophers could capitalize on mistakes or get away with some of their own. This cannot be another performance allowing 500-plus yards.
THE ILLINI WILL WIN IF …
Taylor cleans up the turnovers and really shows his full capability. He has a strong arm and the presence to revive this lackluster Illinois offense against a Gophers defense that hasn’t stopped anything.