Illinois appears ripe for Gophers’ picking

MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Illinois football team has lost six games in a row and is 0-5 in the Big Ten. The Fighting Illini own the worst offense in the conference, averaging just 18.4 points per game. Their defense isn’t any better — Illinois has given up 33.1 points per game, most in the Big Ten.

If the Gophers are to become bowl eligible, this Saturday against the Illini would be a good time to do so.

Minnesota, which began the year a perfect 4-0 in non-conference play, is now sitting at 5-4 overall with three games remaining on the 2012 schedule. The first of those three games is this Saturday against Illinois as the Gophers travel to Champaign to take on the hapless Illini.

On paper, this looks like it should be that elusive sixth win for Minnesota. The Gophers are saying all the right things about Saturday’s matchup, though.

“We can’t take them lightly. Their record isn’t as good as some of the other teams we’ve played, but they’re still a Big Ten team,” said freshman quarterback Philip Nelson. “We’ve seen that teams like Purdue can play with Ohio State. Anything can happen. This game is no different than any other game that we’ve played.”

That’s the way Gophers head coach Jerry Kill is approaching Saturday, too. Kill has a chance to lead Minnesota to a bowl game in just his second season after a 3-9 record a year ago.

After losing to Michigan last Saturday, this weekend’s game looks even more important. Kill was asked if he views the game against Illinois as somewhat of a playoff game.

“I don’t think I look at it that way,” he said. “I think we got three games left, and we’re going to Illinois to play, but I think all three games are critical. Now, this is critical because it’s the next game on our schedule.”

In each of its four Big Ten losses, the Minnesota offense scored just 13 points per game. Facing a vulnerable Illinois defense might be the key to getting the Gophers offense back on track. The Fighting Illini have allowed opponents to gain 172.3 rushing yards per game and a conference-high 22 rushing touchdowns in nine games.

In a loss to Ohio State last weekend, Illinois gave up 330 rushing yards to the Buckeyes. Two games earlier, the Michigan Wolverines ran for 353 yards and four touchdowns against the Illini defense.

That should be music to Gophers running back Donnell Kirkwood’s ears. Kirkwood has had just two 100-yard rushing games this year and just one in Big Ten play. He was held to just 58 yards on 16 carries last Saturday against Michigan.

Now, Kirkwood and the rest of the Minnesota offense will get their chance against what has been a soft Illinois rushing defense.

“I don’t look at what other running backs have done,” Kirkwood said. “It may be motivation, like, ‘Yeah, OK, they can be run on.’ But this is college football. They’re D-I just like we are. They can come to play any day. That’s how you’ve got to look at it.”

Illinois’ offense has been far from impressive this year, but the Illini do have a dual-threat weapon on the offensive side of the ball in quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. The junior didn’t do much last year in a 27-7 loss to the Gophers, however, splitting time at quarterback and attempting just six passes and was sacked five times by Minnesota.

Scheelhaase’s numbers are down this year, as he’s averaging just 133.6 passing yards per game — 10th among Big Ten quarterbacks. He’s also gained just 197 rushing yards on 89 carries. Minnesota has had success against Scheelhaase in the past and knows what it takes to slow down Illinois’ quarterback.

“You’ve got to get him into long yardage if you can because they do a lot of formations and motions and gimmicks and quarterback runs,” said Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys. “You’ve got to stop them first, which I thought we did a good job of a year ago, and then we got them into throwing situations. It really will be the same formula (Saturday).”

After playing at Illinois this Saturday, Minnesota travels to Lincoln, Neb., to take on the Cornuskers. Nebraska is currently 7-2 overall and 4-1 in the conference and is in the driver’s seat to win the Big Ten Legends division. Next weekend’s game at Memorial Stadium — where Nebraska has yet to lose this season — won’t be easy for Kill and the Gophers.

Following the game in Lincoln, Minnesota has its final game of the season at home against Michigan State. It’s been a down year for the 5-5 Spartans after they appeared in the Big Ten Championship game last season. Still, the Gophers don’t want to rely on winning their last game of the season to become bowl eligible.

With that said, Minnesota’s players insist they’re not putting any extra pressure or any added importance on Saturday’s game against Illinois.

“I think it’s something that, when you look at the beginning of the year, it was one of our goals,” senior linebacker Mike Rallis said on making a bowl game. “Obviously, the magic number is one, really, to get to that. But we’re not too focused (on that). Looking ahead to a bowl game is not going to help us beat Illinois. We have to take it one day at a time.”

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