5 things: Gophers hope to avoid letdown against Western Illinois

MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers football team continues its nonconference schedule Saturday when Western Illinois — a Football Championship Subdivision school — visits TCF Bank Stadium for an 11 a.m. kickoff. Both teams enter with identical 2-0 records after Minnesota topped New Mexico State on the road for its second win of the year. Here are five things to watch for when the Gophers and Leathernecks kick off Saturday.

1. How much will Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson run the ball?

Through two games, Nelson leads Minnesota in both carries (27) and rushing yards (205). He had a career rushing day last weekend against New Mexico State, gaining 122 yards on 15 carries. His three rushing touchdowns have also accounted for half of the Gophers’ scores via the ground game.

But at some point, Minnesota will need Nelson to limit his carries a bit in order to protect the health of its sophomore quarterback. Nelson was dinged up a bit against New Mexico State as he took a hit that had him holding his shoulder, but he remained in the game. One bad hit for Nelson and Minnesota would have to turn to a backup quarterback. Nelson has the capability to run, and he seems to legitimately enjoy being able to rush with the football. But the Gophers will have to find the right balance of passes versus rushes for the sophomore in order for him to be the most effective and remain healthy.

2. Is Rodrick Williams due for another big game?

With starting running back Donnell Kirkwood sidelined with an ankle injury against New Mexico State, Williams took advantage. The sophomore ran for a career-high 148 yards on 16 carries — an impressive average of 9.3 yards per carry. Williams and Kirkwood are similar styles of running back: stocky guys who aren’t afraid of contact but can still make a defender miss every now and then. While Kirkwood wasn’t listed on Minnesota’s injury report released Thursday, it’s appearing unlikely that the Gophers will risk using him Saturday as he continues to recover from the ankle injury.

Minnesota has to feel confident in giving more carries to Williams, who was benched for the first half of the season opener against UNLV after he was late to a team meeting. He rebounded when he was given the opportunity to start against New Mexico State, finding the end zone on a 1-yard run and also breaking off a 54-yarder. Western Illinois hasn’t given up much in the way of rushing yards in its first two games, but the Leathernecks haven’t faced a running back of Williams’ caliber yet, either. He could be in for another solid afternoon Saturday.

3. Will a wide receiver emerge as a go-to target?

The Gophers don’t have a player with more than three total catches through two games, and Derrick Engel’s 51 receiving yards lead the team. The passing game has been slow to develop so far, and part of that has been a lack of a go-to receiver for Nelson to throw to.

Minnesota will welcome back redshirt freshman Jamel Harbison this weekend after Harbison missed the Gophers’ first two games for violating team rules. The coaching staff had high hopes for Harbison last year but he tore his ACL in the first game and missed the remainder of the season. Now healthy again, Harbison is the type of receiver who could make an impact offensively. Minnesota also saw junior Logan Hutton make his first career start last weekend. Hutton had a pair of catches in that game and now is tied for the team lead with three. The Gophers have averaged just 113 passing yards per game, which ranks 112th among all FBS teams. Part of that is certainly on the quarterback, but Minnesota’s receivers have also dropped their share of passes. Saturday will be a chance for someone to take a step forward at that position and help stabilize an otherwise shaky passing game.

4. There’s no way the Gophers suffer another FCS letdown … right?

Two years ago, the North Dakota State Bison came into TCF Bank Stadium and upset Jerry Kill’s Gophers in his first year at the helm. Even though NDSU was among the better FCS schools — and is currently the top-ranked FCS team in the country — it was a shock to Minnesota fans. That loss dropped the Gophers to 1-3 on the year and served as one of several bad losses for Kill in his inaugural year in Minneapolis.

Two seasons later, this Gophers team is one that certainly shouldn’t be beaten by FCS opponents — and Saturday’s game should never be close. While Minnesota allowed UNLV to hang around for a while in the season opener, that shouldn’t be the case when Western Illinois comes to town on Saturday.

The Leathernecks enter Saturday’s game a perfect 2-0, but their level of competition has been less than stellar. They beat Division II Quincy last weekend by a 34-6 final as Western Illinois allowed just 39 rushing yards. In the Leathernecks’ season opener, they beat Hampton, another FCS school, 42-9.

5. More big plays in store for Minnesota?

In the Gophers’ first two wins, Minnesota was able to contribute much of its success to big plays — although not necessarily on offense. In the opener, Marcus Jones returned a kickoff for a touchdown. The Gophers also returned a blocked field goal and an interception back for touchdowns to pull away from the Rebels. Last Saturday, Jones ran a punt back all the way for six points, and linebacker Aaron Hill scooped up a fumble and returned it 50 yards for the touchdown, putting the game away in the fourth quarter.

As Minnesota’s offense has been finding a rhythm, the defense and special teams have been lighting a spark. It’s impossible to predict a kick return or interception return for a touchdown, but that’s been the Gophers’ M.O. through two games. If Western Illinois turns the ball over or makes a mistake on special teams, don’t be surprised if Minnesota capitalizes and turns those mistakes into points.

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