Mike Zimmer will face the Packers for the third time as Vikings coach on Sunday, and this is the first time his team will be favored to beat its border rival.

Zimmer was asked if playing the Packers creates any different preparation or expectations from his players.

“Does it make any difference that we’re playing them? I think they understand the importance of this game, being a division game, them being the NFC North champs, I think yeah, they understand there’s a little more to it this week,” Zimmer said.

While many think the Packers are struggling right now, Zimmer said you have to consider their competition — losing back-to-back games to two undefeated teams, and then losing to a division rival at home in the Lions last week.

“Against Carolina, Carolina played really well, they scored a lot of points and then [Green Bay] came back at the end,” he said about the 31-27 loss. “I think they just had a tough stretch. They’re a good football team. [Aaron] Rodgers is a great quarterback, a Hall of Fame guy, [Randall] Cobb is a great receiver, [Eddie] Lacey and [James] Starks are excellent backs. I think their offensive line is very good, people don’t give them enough credit.”

While the Packers are generally known for their offensive output, they have actually been just as good defensively this year. They rank 11th in scoring on both offense and defense, scoring 24.3 points while giving up 20.6 points per game. Zimmer said the Green Bay defense will be a challenge.

“Defensively they put a lot of pressure on you, especially third downs,” he said. “A lot of their interceptions come on third downs because of the blitz package that they have. We’re going to have to do a great job and really stick to get our team to understand that this is who we are and this is how we play and it’s a good thing because we keep winning out of it. So we just have to keep playing the way we play.”

Big play clinches big win

Protecting a one-point lead Saturday, the Gophers had rushed for a measly 21 yards in the fourth quarter, and they might have been headed for defeat had the Illinois offense gotten the ball back.

But Shannon Brooks, the 19-year-old who might be headed for an All-America selection one day, busted loose for a 75-yard touchdown run to clinch a 32-23 victory on a day when their defense was largely inadequate. The second half might have been the worst the Gophers defense played all season as it was dominated by the Illini.

With 85 seconds to play, Brooks made amends for a fumble that had led to an Illinois touchdown with a run that set the stage for a big game with Wisconsin next week and the right to clinch a bowl bid for the fourth year in a row.

Tracy Claeys, who earned his first victory since being named the head coach in place of the retired Jerry Kill, was asked about the Gophers’ second-half struggles.

“Everybody makes adjustments, and it always comes down to third downs, and we didn’t play well in the second half on offense on third downs,” he said.

“It was a tale of two halves offensively, and we thought we could get a few more points. But again the other side, I’m proud of the defense, we were able to hold on and get the win for the way we’ve had things go against us here recently.”

As for the big touchdown run by Brooks, Claeys said: “It was just a give off the zone dive is all it was. Up front it’s just getting a body on a body, and [the Illini] overran it. I thought today, he did a good job of finding the cutbacks and whether to bounce or keep it on path. He can run, as he showed, when he gets in the secondary. … If we can do that more, he’s a good enough back to hit the hole, and he can get it over with.”

Freshmen were ready

Brooks put together his second-best rushing total of the season Saturday, a nearly identical line to his breakout performance against Purdue in October when he rushed for 176 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Against Illinois, he rushed for 174 yards and one touchdown on 17 carries.

Still, Brooks acknowledged that it was a number of freshmen making big plays in the game that helped the Gophers end their four-game losing streak.

“We all work hard in practice and we came up in the summer studying the playbook and getting as many reps as we can,” he said. “It shows, and paid off today.”

Asked if he believed this freshman class could become this good so fast, he said: “You know, you always have to come in with a good mindset, don’t be negative and stay positive and work hard and learn as much as you can. When your opportunity comes you have to take advantage of it.”

With Brooks bringing in his second touchdown of at least 70 yards on the season, he was asked how it feels to break away for a score like that.

“It’s the greatest feeling, especially for a running back, they dream of long touchdowns,” he said. “It’s good to see the line open up that big of a line, anyone could run through really, it’s a great feeling.”

SID’s JOTTINGS

Gophers football coach Tracy Claeys gives former Maroon and Gold quarterback Adam Weber a lot of credit for the recent performance of Mitch Leidner. “Weber has spent a lot of time individually with Mitch in meetings and on the sidelines during games, and it has really paid off,” Claeys said. Weber, who had a brief stint in the NFL with the Denver Broncos, is a graduate assistant this year and don’t be surprised if he gets a job on the staff. Naturally, quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski has also had a huge effect on Leidner.

An All-America secretary is how I would rate Roz Sorenson, who served Vikings General Manager Mike Lynn and others for more than 20 years. When Lynn left the Vikings, he gave her the keys to a new car. Sorenson died earlier this month at age 86; she was my very close personal friend.

The Gophers offered a scholarship to JD Spielman, the Eden Prairie standout who was named Star Tribune Prep Football Player of the Year, but the son of Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman chose Nebraska instead. The Gophers viewed him as a wide receiver, but with the Cornhuskers he will play at defensive back.

There’s good news for Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino in what Tre Jones, the Apple Valley sophomore who is going to be top recruit in the class of 2018, told Gophers Illustrated recently: “They’re recruiting me hard. I love it there. I mean, it’s home. It’s only 20, 25 minutes away. Amir [Coffey] just committed there. Their program is growing a bunch. It would be great to go home, too.”

Former Vikings defensive lineman Letroy Guion has been playing for the Packers after sitting out three games to start the season following his February arrest on felony charges of possession of marijuana and a firearm. He has 10 tackles in six games.