2011 Illinois Fighting Illini Football

Big Ten football fans

Illinois @ Minnesota Football Preview



Sometimes, a 6-5 team can enter a game with less confidence and belief than a 2-9 team. That just might be the case in one of the Big Ten’s several regular-season finales this weekend. The Minnesota Golden Gophers will host the Illinois Fighting Illini on Saturday, which is Senior Day at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Even though Illinois is making bowl plans and Minnesota is limping to the end of a largely painful season, it’s quite possible that the Golden Gophers might have more juice in the tank than their more credentialed yet entirely miserable opponent.

Illinois (6-5, 2-5 Big Ten) has lost five in a row after starting the season 6-0. Last week, the Illini surrendered a 14-0 first-half lead on the way to a 28-17 loss to Wisconsin in Champaign. Badgers running back Montee Ball ran for 224 yards and scored three touchdowns. Illinois was victimized by two straight phantom offensive pass interference calls in the Wisconsin red zone on a drive late in the first half. The Illini should have scored a touchdown to take a 21-7 lead, but a clearly erroneous pair of rulings on pick plays forced the Illini to settle for a field goal. Then, when the second half arrived, Illinois wasn’t undone by bad calls so much as its own mistakes, the kinds of goofs and gaffes that can’t be pawned off on someone else.

Illinois turned the ball over four times against the Badgers, littering the field with loose balls in the second half of play. The turnovers more than negated the Illini’s edge in total yards and ruined an afternoon in which Illinois flatly hammered Wisconsin on offense and defense through the first 35 minutes.

Illinois rotated quarterbacks, with some results in the first half but precious little success once the worm turned just before halftime. Nathan Scheelhaase threw for 99 yards with one interception, and Riley O’ Toole threw for 53 yards with two interceptions to complete a third-quarter train wreck for a team that is reeling at the moment.

Minnesota (2-9, 1-6) lost 28-13 at Northwestern last week. The Gophers outgained the Wildcats, and rushed for 246 yards, but could not capitalize on their opportunities to score. Nevertheless, the fact that Minnesota pushed NU as a road underdog will give the Gophers – who have already knocked off Iowa this season – the clear conviction that they can topple the Illini this week.

Duane Bennett rushed for 127 yards for the Gophers against Northwestern. Quarterback Marqueis Gray ran for 147, but struggled in the passing game, completing just nine of 21 attempts for 124 yards, with an interception. It was the first time since 2006 that two Gophers rushed for 100 yards in the same game. Minnesota threatened to create a close contest against the Wildcats, but Bennett’s third-quarter fumble, and a third-quarter interception in the end zone on a tipped pass by Northwestern’s Brian Peters, effectively killed the Gophers’ chances.

Gray and the Gophers will face a tougher defense this week than last when they square off with the Illini. Illinois’ defense is led by defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who leads the nation with 13.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles. Illinois does have the more talented studs in the stable… the question is, will those talented players care at all after five straight losses have hijacked the Illini’s season?


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By: Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer



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