SCOUTING REPORT: GOPHERS VS. ILLINOIS
Saturday: 2:30 p.m. TCF Bank Stadium (BTN, 100.3-FM)
A look at the Illini
Illinois hasn’t put together a winning season since 2011, never winning more than three Big Ten games in a season in that time. And while the Illini finished last in the Big Ten West last season, going 4-8 with just two wins in the conference, one of those was against the Gophers. They demolished the visiting Gophers 55-31, gaining 646 yards, with 430 of those on the ground. The loss spurred Gophers coach P.J. Fleck to fire then-defensive coordinator Robb Smith. And it marked a turning point for the program, which went 3-1 to finish the season with a much-improved defense. Illinois (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) also has a defensive weak spot, giving up an average of 407 yards per game this season, but the Illini averages 35.5 points per game, just a smidgen more than the Gophers.
Who to watch: Illinois running back Reggie Corbin
In Illinois’ win against the Gophers last year, Corbin tallied 213 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries. Gophers linebacker Thomas Barber said Corbin is a “very shifty guy, very low to the ground” who seems to have “new moves every play.” He’s still a top threat this year with 314 yards and three touchdowns on 44 carries. But he’s not the only target. “Corbin is a dynamic athlete. He is one of their best football players, but so is Dre [Brown, running back] right behind him,” Fleck said. “So is [receiver Ricky] Smalling.” The Illini also have a graduate transfer receiver from USC in Josh Imatorbhebhe and a graduate transfer from Michigan in quarterback Brandon Peters. Fleck also pointed out the offensive line, particularly center Doug Kramer, whom Fleck called one of the best he’s seen on film at that position “in any year at any level.”
From the coach: Lovie Smith
Smith is in his fourth season at Illinois after an NFL coaching career. He’s managed only a 11-29 record and just four Big Ten wins. He told reporters at a new conference this week it helps to have prior success against teams, but this is ultimately a different game. And a new threat the Illini will face is the Gophers’ depth at receiver, especially coming off a very big passing game. “These guys, I mean, they’re bigger, play the ball well, the 50-50 balls,” Smith said. “When you have a running game that’s working, you get in a lot of one-on-one situations. And I just know that they’ve made plays. Most of their games have gone right up to the end, and it’s taken big plays in the passing game [to win].” Illinois allows an average of more than 261 passing yards per game, so Smith said the Gophers will be a challenge for his pass-defense, which hasn’t played its best this year.