Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said his team doesn’t use words like “revenge.” That might be true for this one rematch, but the Gophers certainly exited last year’s 55-31 beating at Illinois with new motivation. They’re 7-1 since with a new defensive coordinator and undefeated in 2019. Prediction: Gophers 41, Illinois 38
THREE BIG STORY LINES
Illinois has six Power Five transfers, all starters. From quarterback Brandon Peters, a transfer from Michigan, to receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe, a transfer from USC, to defensive end Oluwole Betiku Jr., also from USC, the Illini are a revamped team from last season’s iteration, which finished last in the Big Ten West.
The Illini average 35.5 points per game. The Gophers average 34.8. Illinois posts an average of 380.3 offensive yards per game. The Gophers come in at 389.5. An offensive showdown will likely decide the winner.
The Gophers missed plenty of tackles at Purdue last week, making wrapping up a priority in practice this week. Tackling was also their downfall at Illinois in 2018, so the Gophers will want to avoid reliving the past.
TWO KEY MATCHUPS
Illinois’ Reggie Corbin vs. Gophers’ Thomas Barber
The Illinois running back lit up the Gophers last season with 213 yards on 13 carries, plus two touchdowns. The Gophers linebacker made just one tackle in that game, despite amassing 229 throughout his career so far. Preventing Illinois from stacking up 430 rushing yards like last year is a Gophers imperative.
Illinois’ Oluwole Betiku Jr. vs. Gophers’ offensive line
The Illinois defensive end leads the nation in sacks (1.75) and tackles for loss (2.6) per game. The Gophers O-line made some adjustments last week, rotating guards and John Michael Schmitz in at center. But that unit has still played a part in allowing 11 sacks for a loss of 109 yards this season.
ONE STAT THAT MATTERS
1 possession, the margin by which the Gophers have won their four games this year. They’re the first since 1985 to start a season that way, just the fifth in FBS history, according to Elias Sports Bureau. The record is six.
THE Gophers WILL WIN IF …
they finish their tackles. They were winning at Purdue 28-10 at halftime this past Saturday. Then a series of defensive gaffes in the second half made it too close for comfort. The offense is thriving, especially through the air. The defense needs to follow suit.
Illinois WILL WIN IF …
its pass defense improves. The Illini allow an average of 407.8 offensive yards a game, 261.8 of those from passing. The Gophers’ quarterback and receivers are only gaining power, so that’s not an area to ignore.