MINNEAPOLIS — On Sept. 7, Illinois ended a 12-year nonconference road losing streak with a win at UConn.
On Saturday afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium, the Illini will try to beat Minnesota on its home field for the first time since 2009.
That year, Ron Zook’s team, which finished 3-9, edged the Gophers 35-32. Minnesota was led that year by former Illini tight end Tim Brewster.
Illinois coach Lovie Smith doesn’t spend much time — or any — dwelling on the past. But he wants to start a road winning streak.
“We haven’t lost on the road right now,” Smith said of his 2-2 Illini, who defeated UConn 31-23 earlier this season in its only road game so far. “It’s always harder, of course, to play on the road. But good football teams do that. There’s some things you need to do: protect the football, take the ball away, establish the run, not let them get their running game going. You can say that about home (games) too, but it seems like it’s more the case when you’re on the road.”
The home of the Gophers is 10 years old. Smith is going there for the second time as Illini coach.
“All of them are pretty much the same,” Smith said. “When you go on the road, you’re going to have a hostile crowd. And you kind of deal with those things.”
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The Illini travel party left for Minneapolis on Friday afternoon. The team spent Friday night at the JW Marriott Minneapolis/Mall of America.
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In their most recent loss to Nebraska, the Illini had a two-touchdown lead in the second half before losing 42-38 on Sept. 21.
“We lost the last game, but I can’t fault the effort at all offensively,” Smith said. “We had the ball with a chance to win the football game. Defensively, we had to get a stop for us to have a chance to come back. So, we finished strong.”
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Senior defensive lineman Tymir Oliver is running out of games. He’s got eight more guaranteed opportunities.
“You want all the guys to finish on a high note, playing their best ball,” Smith said. “Tymir has done an awful lot for us. Played a lot of games for us.”
Oliver was slowed in training camp by injury.
“He played pretty good the last game,” Smith said. “That’s who Tymir Oliver is. He shows up every day with his lunch pail ready to go to work. We have an idea what he’s going to do every time he steps on the field.”
Oliver wants the team to show it has improved.
“There are a lot of people still doubting us,” he said. “That’s fair enough. We took a loss.”
The difference between 2-2 and 4-0 isn’t great.
“It’s the little things,” Oliver said.
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Smith has also been happy with the play of defensive linemen Jamal Milan and Jamal Woods.
“They are starters for good reason,” Smith said. “We like what both of them bring to the table. Your defense starts with the closest one to the quarterback. You need to be solid there. With both of them healthy, we feel real good about our chances.”
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Coming off a close loss didn’t change the way the Illini prepared for Minnesota.
“When you’re disappointed, you want to play the next game,” Smith said. “It’s a Big Ten West opponent. What else do you need to get motivated? It’s a big game for us absolutely.”
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Freshman quarterback Isaiah Williams played for the first time in his college career against Nebraska.
When will he play next?
“We’ll see on that,” Smith said. “Our plan was to get him a few reps. Those plays didn’t go as we would like for them to. Each week is a different game plan.
“Eventually, he’s going to help us win a lot of games. When that time comes, we’ll see.”
Williams is improving, according to Smith.
“He’s a student of the game,” Smith said. “He’s serious about ball. As much as you can as a freshman who hasn’t played, he’s making improvement.”
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No reason to remind Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck about how well Illinois’ Reggie Corbin played against his team last season. Corbin ran for 213 yards and two touchdowns on just 13 carries. It was the eighth-best single-game total in Illini history.
“It’s a completely different year, so when we’re talking about last year, I don’t talk about last year with our team,” Fleck said. “We don’t talk about words like revenge or things like that. Those things do not exist in our program. We’ve got to be better today than we were yesterday.”
Still, Fleck is a fan of Corbin. And a lot of the other Illini.
“Corbin is a dynamic athlete,” Fleck said. “He is one of their best football players, but so is Dre (Brown) right behind him, so is (Ricky) Smalling, so is the transfer wideout from USC, so is the offensive line who have played together for some years now. Their center (Doug Kramer) may be one of the best guys I’ve seen on film at center in any year at any level.”
Michigan transfer Brandon Peters also drew praise from Fleck.
“Their quarterback is playing at a really high level,” Fleck said. “He can distribute the ball. He’s a really good passer and a really good football player.
“We’ve got to focus on everybody. It’s not just one guy anymore. It’s everybody.”
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It’s homecoming on Saturday at Minnesota. Fleck has a story about the tradition.
“Funny thing about homecoming, it happens every single year, there’s one freshman that walks in my office and asks, “When’s the dance?’” Fleck said. “And I look at him like, ‘Are you serious?’”
“There’s no gym. There’s no streamers. We don’t have to set up the gym and make the Kool-Aid and all that other stuff.”