What are your biggest takeaways from the first two games of the season?
It was an exhausting off-season for the players and coaches. Will they play? Won't they play? When will they play? By the time they got to the opener at Wisconsin, you would have thought they would be ready to go. Then, they went out and laid an egg in Madison. On so many levels it was one of the worst performances I have seen by Illinois in my 32 years covering the team. Especially a team with high hopes going into the season. The defense allowed the Badgers to run down the field without being challenged and the offense couldn't move the ball. Some of that is because of how well the Badgers played. But Illinois was much more at fault. Out of all the players, I would say maybe a handful did their jobs and that would be generous. Illinois was very short-handed against Purdue and had to start backup Matt Robinson at quarterback. He got hurt early and was replaced by the fourth-stringer, Coran Taylor, who had never played important minutes in college. He made some critical mistakes (two fumbles, two picks) but seemed to give the offense life and led a fourth-quarter comeback. Illinois got deep in Purdue territory with a chance to tie or take the lead. Lovie Smith said he would have gone for two, which is very much out of character for him. Am I surprised Illinois is 0-2? Yes I thought it had a chance to hang with Wisconsin, which it beat a year ago. And I thought it would take care of Purdue at home. This is the worst-case scenario for Illinois.
With the decent success of last year, can the Illini still build off of that in this season? Or have you seen enough already to consider it a fluke?
When Illinois was 6-4 last year and won four in a row, I thought the program had turned the corner. Then, it dropped the last three games, including a really poor effort at home against Northwestern on Senior Day. The Redbox Bowl against Cal gave Illinois a chance to finish with a winning season for the first time since 2011. But it got beat by the Bears. Not the way to end what was once a promising season. I have said forever that there is no reason Illinois can't win consistently. But I am starting to wonder. Illinois got hurt when the Big Ten decided to shelve the nonconference part of the schedule. Illinois had three easy wins lined up and would have had a little juice going into the conference schedule. And also have a chance to work out some of the bugs on both sides of the ball. Jumping in against the Badgers, who wanted revenge, was not good for Illinois. So, back to your original question, the 2019 season seems like more of a fluke than it did before the Wisconsin game. The team has lost five in a row and is an underdog in No. 6. Looking ahead at the schedule, I don't see any opponent that Illinois can't lose to. And it will be the underdog in most of the final seven.
What's the COVID situation on the team? How will that affect this game? Is Coran Taylor the QB for the next stretch?
Two players, including starting quarterback Brandon Peters, had positive COVID-19 tests last week and had to sit out the Purdue game. A dozen others also had to sit out last week and this week because of contact tracing. Credit Illinois for following the rules, but it hurt the team badly against Purdue and will again against the Gophers. The team won't have its starting center, kicker and a bunch of guys on both lines. They are using a walk-on former tight end at offensive guard. The one positive out of the whole deal for Illinois is the rediscovery of Taylor. He was buried on the bench, but the depleted roster gave him a chance to shine. His skillset fits Rod Smith's offense better than Peters. With a full week to prepare, I think he will be better this week. Taylor was a great high school player who got stuck in a rut here. Now, he might create a quarterback controversy when Peters comes back. More for me to write about. Taylor is definitely starting against the Gophers. He has a strong arm and is a very good athlete. Accuracy and decision-making are the big questions. He could have a monster game. Or be a turnover machine. It will be fun to see which one.
Who are a couple players Gophers fans should monitor?
On defense, linebacker Jake Hansen. He is a Butkus Award candidate who was having a great 2019 season until he missed the last four games with an injury. He got his bell rung against Wisconsin and had to sit for the rest of the game, but came back and had 14 tackles and forced a fumble against Purdue. He is always around the ball. On offense, watch for Illinois tight ends Daniel Barker, Daniel Imatorbhebhe and Luke Ford. After seeing the ball very little in the opener, they were busy against Purdue. They are all big targets with the ability to burn the defense down the field. Taylor got comfortable throwing to them last week and will likely do it again.
Share your prediction and why:
Minnesota 42, Illinois 35. I was very high on the Gophers before the season. I had them in the Top 10 of my AP Top 25 ballot. And I thought they would win the Big Ten West. That is gone now, but I expect the Minnesota offense to continue to play well. The Illinois offense played much better against Purdue and will score some points. But the Minnesota weapons will be too much for the Illinois defense. A late TD catch by Rashod Bateman gives Minnesota the victory. Watch, the final will be 3-2.