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Minnesota Gophers at Illinois Fighting Illini: Preview, Predictions and Prognostications

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When: Saturday, Oct. 29; noon ET
Where: Champaign, Ill.; Memorial Stadium (60,670)
TV: BTN
All-Time Series: Minnesota leads 36-29-3
Last Meeting: Minnesota won 32-23 (2015)
Line: Minnesota (-5)

Nothing says Big Ten West like a supposedly sleepy late October matchup between the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Minnesota Gophers, huh?

Don’t let that perception fool you though, because this game is very important to the Gophers who are looking at bowl eligibility with a win. It also would keep their hopes in the Big Ten West division alive too.

As for the Illini, this game is as close to must-win as possible, especially if Lovie Smith wants to take anything positive from his crazy first season at the helm of this program. Can either side get what they want in this early matchup?

 

1 Burning Question: Who Will Play at QB for the Illini?

Wes Lunt appears healthy for the Illini, but the depth chart lists not one, but three potential starting quarterbacks for this matchup against the Gophers. Could it be sophomore Chayce Crouch or freshman Jeff George Jr.?

Let’s just say the only mystery here is just how healthy Lunt is, because Crouch and George have been downright awful behind center in their opportunities so far this season. George went just 4 of 15 for 95 yards and a touchdown against Michigan, while Crouch is just 18 of 32 for 249 yards and one touchdown to one interception.

Not exactly the stuff of confidence-building for a team needing a big shot in the arm on the offensive side of the football. So, if Lunt is even close to ready, you better believe he should be starting for the here and now.

2 Key Stats:

— 8. That is the number of fumble recoveries the Illini have in 2016. It also happens to lead the Big Ten and rank inside the top 10 nationally. Minnesota has had some issues with fumbling the football, coughing it up seven times but only losing three of them. If the Illini want to win, it has to find a way to make the Gophers turn the ball over and the stats suggest that is wholly possible.

—1. That is the number of first half touchdowns the Gophers have allowed in Big Ten play. If one is wondering how an offensively inconsistent team like Minnesota can still have five wins to its name, this would be one huge reason. Teams tend to dig themselves holes they can’t get out of by being shut out in the first half. In fact, the Gophers have allowed a grand total of 16 points to Big Ten teams in the first half all season long and just 44 points to all teams on the year. So, if Illinois wants to win…it better find a way to do something most teams haven’t been able to do — score in the first half.

3 Key Players:

Damarius Travis, Minnesota S: Few safeties have been as big of a ball hawk as Travis has in the back of the Gophers defense. However, he is also equally impressive against the run and that is where he may be needed most in this game. That’s because the Illini have some big play running backs in their backfield. Travis is going to likely need to be on his game in space, making one-on-one tackles for the Gophers to stay in this game. Opponents are rushing for just 3.7 yards per game against the Gophers, and Travis has been a help in that area.

Kendric Foster, Illinois RB: One way to combat the inability of opponents to score in the first half? Try a big play running back like Kendric Foster. The team has four runs of over 50 yards on the season and Foster had a pair of them against Murray State. He also is adept at not losing yards, only losing eight yards all season long and gaining 429 yards on 70 carries so far this season. While slugging it out on the ground could be to Minnesota’s advantage in terms of the tempo, Foster is the best weapon Illinois has and needs to test that Gophers rush defense.

Mitch Leidner, Minnesota QB: After sitting out the Maryland game, Leidner was back in against Rutgers last week. However, he wasn’t exactly a game-changer in terms of passing with just 11 completions (on 18 attempts) for 156 yards and an interception. For a senior, Leidner still struggles to get himself or his team going unless it’s a critical situation. He’s only passed for over 200 yards twice this season and has five touchdowns to five interceptions. Illinois defense has been prone to a few big plays in the passing game, but Leidner may be most useful in this game on the ground, where he has four touchdowns and 181 yards on 47 carries for the year.

4 Staff Predictions:

Andy: Minnesota 31-10
Dave: Minnesota 24-17
Phil H.: Minnesota 27-20
Philip R-R.: Minnesota 27-17
Zach: Minnesota 28-24

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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Gophers Football

Gophers finally grab the Axe, manage to make big statement in the process

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It’s been 14 agonizingly long years, but the streak has finally come to an end and the Minnesota Gophers have taken possession of Paul Bunyan’s Axe. 

To make the win even sweeter, Minnesota became bowl eligible as they chopped down the goalposts at Camp Randall Stadium for the first time since 1994. 

It is time to revel and celebrate for sure. As head coach P.J. Fleck stated after the game, “this is for the state of Minnesota.” 

But, this win was more of a statement than just ending a streak. How Minnesota beat the Badgers told a tale of a team ready to compete at a very high level. 

Much has been made of the growing pains of a young Gophers team. On Saturday, that team finally put it together for 60 minutes in all three phases of the game. 

There was a punt return for a touchdown and three made field goals from the special teams. Minnesota’s defense held Jonathan Taylor out of the end zone, forced three interceptions and a fumble out of Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook and the offense took those four turnovers and capitalized on them to the tune of 24 points. 

The Gophers defense played so well on Saturday and really throughout the final few weeks of the season that interim defensive coordinator Joe Rossi had the interim tag removed after the game according to Fleck. 

Minnesota didn’t win on a miracle or a fluke play. The Gophers were the better team on the day. That’s important to remember. 

So is the fact that this young team will now have 15 more practices and chances to get better because of this win.. Given the youth of this team, those moments are invaluable. 

The experience of getting back to a bowl game will also help. Every chance to be competitive matters. 

But now the bigger questions will be asked. Can the Gophers use this win as a game-changer for this program in general? Is this the defining moment of the Fleck era or a fleeting moment of glory? 

Only time will answer those questions, but it is hard not to be positive about this program after getting the biggest albatross removed from around the neck of the Gophers program.  

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Annexstad shows promise in Gophers debut

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Plenty of people were curious about the Minnesota Gophers starting quarterback coming in to the season opener. After all, it’s not often that a true freshman walk-on gets the starting nod. 

But, the attention and pressure of the first college game was not too much to handle for Gophers quarterback Zack Annextad. After a few shaky moments early on, Annexstad looked like he belonged on the field in the Gophers 48-10 victory over New Mexico State. 

Annexstad wasn’t super accurate, completing just 48 percent of his passes. But, he more than made up for it with a blistering 220 yards and two touchdowns. Additionally, he kept the Aggies from picking him off all game long. 

Perhaps the best bit of news is that it appears the Gophers may have more than one good target for Annexstad to work with. Veteran wide receiver Tyler Johnson was on point, catching five passes for 100 yards and both of the touchdown throws.

Rashod Bateman caught five passes and Chris Autman-Bell had four to his name as well. 

Meanwhile, sophomore wide receiver Seth Green looked dangerous as an all-around player. He touched the ball in the backfield twice and scored on both of those touches, giving future opponents plenty to think about when it comes to game-planning for the Gophers.

Minnesota also showed off an impressive run game after a rocky start on the ground. Star running back Rodney Smith racked up 153 yards and the Gophers ran for 295 yards and three touchdowns as a team. 

Add in a defense that allowed just 38 yards on the ground and only 10 points and there is a recipe for success going forward. 

Of course, one has to take in to consideration the caliber of opponent, but for a team with a lot of question marks on offense, there’s little doubt this was a confidence builder. 

While there will be plenty of improvement needed in order for Minnesota to be competitive come Big Ten play, this offense looks and feels different than it did a year ago. 

As far as debuts go, there certainly was promise shown from Annexstad and that’s really all you can ask for from a freshman making his first start. 

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Gophers, Huskers could have games altered by Oregon wildfires

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Mother Nature could wreak havoc on college football this upcoming weekend, but the majority of the news has been focused on an impending hurricane barring down on Florida.

A look out West and things are just as dangerous and deadly, as wildfires are raging in California, Oregon and Washington. That could present a big problem for the Minnesota Gophers game on Saturday night with the Oregon State Beavers and Nebraska’s visit to the Oregon Ducks.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune cites sources within the Pac-12 saying that the game time may be moved or the game moved all together.

While the fire isn’t the problem, it is the air quality in the Eugene area that is. Oregon has already had to move practice closer to the Pacific Coast and the air in Eugene appears to be a major issue.

The smoke in Eugene, where an air protection agency listed the air quality as “hazardous,” prompted Oregon to move its Tuesday practice to Florence, near the Pacific coast.

The good news is that the smoke cleared enough a day later for the Ducks to return to practice in Eugene. But, there is reason to believe the game could still be an issue as smoke is expected to return.

The smoke is supposed to return at some point. But we just don’t know when. … There are too many variables for us to look that far ahead of time.”

Yes, that means we won’t know about the status of Nebraska-Oregon until Saturday itself.

Meanwhile, things don’t look as precarious for the Gophers matchup, but that doesn’t mean change would be out of the question.

“Based upon the information provided by the air protection agency and the expert health and safety advice of the respective University medical professionals, a decision will be made on whether or not to adjust game times and/or dates with the safety of student-athletes and fans as a priority,” Andrew Walker, the Pac-12’s vice president of public affairs, wrote in an e-mail to the (Portland) Oregonian.

Once again, it appears things are going to be in a wait-and-see mode in Corvallis as well.

It hasn’t affected Minnesota all that much, as they are more worried about playing at game that would kick at 9pm in Minneapolis if it were being played at home.

Head coach P.J. Fleck has talked this week about making sure players are staying up later as the week goes on to adjust their bodies. That’s especially important as practices are taking place first thing in the morning this season.

Either way, both of these programs are dealing with a lot of uncertainty right now and that may be the biggest hurdle to get over when prepping for Week 2.

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Gophers Football

Fleck smart to let QB battle play out in actual game action

P.J. Fleck continues to row the boat at his own pace, deciding on not one, but two starting quarterbacks for the season opener against Buffalo.

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What is better than one starting quarterback? Two starting quarterbacks.

At least that is the theory Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck is going to test out for his first season at at the helm of the Gophers.

It’s a bold strategy (insert meme here), and one that hasn’t exactly worked out well for just about anyone in the past you say? Heck, even with two potential NFL draft picks it didn’t work out well for a program like Ohio State and a coach like Urban Meyer back in 2015.

The history of bad news coming with dueling starting quarterbacks heading in to the season hasn’t stopped Fleck from doing just that though.

It shouldn’t be surprising however. After all, P.J. Fleck is his own man, and many of the decisions he makes on and off the field demonstrate just that.

But, on Thursday Fleck made a pretty bold decision at quarterback — he’ll go with both Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda as starters entering the season.

To be fair, the two quarterbacks haven’t exactly separated much in fall camp.

To the outsider that could be bad news, but according to the head coach himself, it was due to both earning the opportunity on the field.

“Every time I think I see one nudging the other out, the other one closed the gap and passed him.” Fleck said, via the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “And they’ve continued to do that. That tells me this late in training camp that both of ’em deserve to play.”

Fleck also brought up a very good point in his talk to the media — neither have a wealth of game experience to draw on and that makes separating based on practice alone a bit of a crapshoot.

“If I was to tell you that I knew exactly how those quarterbacks are going to play in a game, that’s a guess,” Fleck noted, while also pointing out just how little game experience exists.

There is a grand total of 17 passing attempts in a game between the two of them and 15 of them belong to fifth-year senior Rhoda. He went seven of 15 for 82 yards and a touchdown.

Fleck is also thinking ahead with this decision, because we all know every team in America is just one big hit away from having to go to the backup quarterback. Why not get whomever that will ultimately be some game experience while sorting things out?

It was part of Fleck’s reasoning to the media on Thursday as well.

“If we think we can go through the Big Ten and not need two quarterbacks at some point, I think we’re crazy to think that,” he said. “We’re gonna need ’em.”

With a new energy and style around the Gophers program, it seems almost fitting that Fleck would buck most of recent history — whatever he wanted to claim about two-quarterback systems working.

For every Alabama in the past few years, there is an Ohio State or Wisconsin or others to show Fleck the dangers of a prolonged QB battle.

The hope has to be that the separation that didn’t happen in spring or fall camp does happen once the games go live. Otherwise this could be one interesting first season in Minneapolis.

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