Can the Gophers Finish the Job Against Illinois?

Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson (USA TODAY Sports)

While the Gophers have laid an egg this season in the win column, Vegas is still giving them the benefit of having an extraordinary campaign a season ago.

As of Friday morning, Minnesota is favored by a touchdown. The odds were not affected by potential COVID-19 personnel changes on the Gophers’ side, even though they could be without key players in Saturday’s 2:30 game against Illinois. The exact amount of absences might not be known until warmups before the game, just like the Michigan game when two of Minnesota’s starting offensive linemen were out, as well as the entire starting kicking and punting corps.

This season, the odds really mean nothing. Minnesota was at least a three-score favorite against Maryland. The Gophers didn’t just fail to cover — they lost the game entirely. This game between two 0-2 teams could very well be another toss-up.

It’s evident how disadvantaged the Gophers are without their starters on special teams. That means seeing the likes of Michael Lantz, Grant Ryerse and Mark Crawford. Crawford is a freshman who was supposed to significantly improve the Gophers’ punting situation, and he hasn’t seen the field yet this season.

Minnesota is last in the Big Ten in average yards on the kickoff. Illinois is second in that category. On punts, Minnesota is second to last in average distance, one ahead of Michigan. It’s key for the Gophers to get Ryerse and Crawford into the picture, although Lantz appeared in the Maryland game and significantly helped kickoff distance.

Another significant issue for Minnesota is their defense. It has been Big 12-level bad. The Gophers have allowed 13 touchdowns through two games, which nearly half of Tanner Morgan’s passing touchdown total last season. They are allowing nearly 600 yards per game and have given up a staggering 9.5 yards per play to opposing offenses.

Illinois has one of the worst offenses in the Big Ten so far, which the Gophers should be able to exploit. But it won’t matter ifthey play like they did against Maryland last week. The Terrapins were coming off a game they didn’t score a touchdown and had just over 200 total yards of offense. They lost a shootout, 45-44.

Maryland rolled over the Minnesota defense, and now the unit is desperately searching for confidence to stop anybody. That is much harder to predict when it was a similar situation the group failed in one week ago.

The real advantage Minnesota has is on the other side of the ball. Illinois has the worst offense in the Big Ten. The Illini have just four touchdowns and one field goal this season for 31 points, the worst in the conference. Minnesota is fifth with nine touchdowns, two field goals for 68 points, averaging 34 per game. While it is to be determined whether the Gopher defense can hold back the reeling Illini offense, they should be able to hold strong in a shootout, if the game becomes that like the first two contests.

It’s no secret the Gophers will rely heavily on their running game with Mohamed Ibrahim playing really well. Morgan still has the tools to get the ball to receivers Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell, given he has the time from his offensive linemen.

Minnesota could very well come out on top in a high-scoring game and leave no one surprised. The defense could fall out and the Gophers could lose another heartbreaking game and the same would be true. The real question heading into Illinois is if the defense can shore itself up and hold off even the most disappointing offense in the conference so far this season.

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