Beat writer SCOTT RICHEY breaks down five hot topics ahead of the 2:30 p.m. kickoff at Minnesota:
Illinois fans can get in some tailgating time (either at home or outside TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis) with the afternoon kickoff. The same crew from the Illini’s last game against Nebraska — Kevin Kugler (play-by-play), Matt Millen (analysis) and Rick Pizzo (sideline reports) — has the call on BTN.
Illinois is 1-4 at TCF Bank Stadium since it opened in 2009, which was also the last time the Illini won on the road against the Gophers. Minnesota’s advantage at home against Illinois all-time stands at 22-12-2, and just three of those Illini wins have come in the last 30 years.
Lovie Smith’s take on his team’s pass defense through the first four games of the season? It wasn’t the Illini’s best. The Illinois coach declined to elaborate on a specific area that he’s not seeing when it comes to pass defense execution. “We’re just going to try to improve on everything,” Smith said. “I can only give you a general answer to a big question like that, a general question.”
The Illini, who rank 102nd nationally in pass defense, will need to find an answer against Minnesota. Gophers’ quarterback Tanner Morgan is coming off a near perfect game at Purdue and has two legit NFL prospects at wide receiver in Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman.
The Illinois offense was converting on 51.2 percent of its third-down opportunities heading into the Nebraska game. Good enough to rank among the top tier of teams in the country. Then came a 1-of-12 nightmare on third down against the Cornhuskers. Those missed opportunities — plus letting Nebraska convert 57.8 percent of its third downs — contributed to a second straight loss for the Illini.
“It’s inexcusable,” Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. “It’s bad. It’s on me. We’ve got to be better. I’ve got to be better, and I’ve got to put our kids in a better situation. If we convert on third down 40 percent of the time, that’s a different game. We didn’t, so it is what it is and we’ve got to get it corrected.”
Games decided by single digits, of which there have been 11 in 40 opportunities, have gone against more than for Illinois in the Lovie Smith era. The Illini are 4-7 in those games in the last three-plus seasons and 1-2 this year after home losses to Eastern Michigan and Nebraska.
“The biggest thing for us is we’ve got to learn how to win close games,” Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters said. “We’ve let it slip through our fingers twice in a row. ... It’s not easy. The game gets more intense on each side of the ball. I don’t know if I have any tips or tricks, but you’ve just got to stay focused on your assignments. That’s the part of the game where you can’t make mistakes.”
Predicting the future
The 14-point spread leaning in Minnesota’s favor is probably a bit much given the unbeaten Gophers have managed to stay that way by a combined 20 points in four games.
Eliminate Illinois’ blowout win against Akron — because that’s the Zips’ lot in life this season — and the margin in the remaining games is a combined 15 points for one win and two losses.
However this game plays out, the odds favor a close one. Home-field advantage and an apparently legit passing game gives Minnesota the edge. Gophers 41, Illini 34