Minnesota clicking while Illinois struggles

Minnesota clicking while Illinois struggles

Published Oct. 24, 2014 3:12 a.m. ET

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Minnesota has won four straight, is undefeated in the Big Ten and has locked up a spot in some kind of bowl game.

Coach Jerry Kill says his Gophers (6-1, 3-0) have done all that without really playing their best.

''I'd say for us that we have a whole lot more to improve, to be a really, really good team,'' the fourth-year coach said. ''We just do. And so are we close to being as good as we can be? No. No, we're not.''

That's probably not what Illinois (3-4, 0-3) wanted to hear.


The Illini face the Gophers on Saturday, looking end a three-game losing streak.

Illinois coach Tim Beckman likely wouldn't mind trading places with Kill right now.

Illinois has only one Big Ten win in Beckman's 2 1/2 seasons in Champaign.

A win on homecoming weekend over the Gophers might at least cool the hot seat under Beckman. He says he has to admire what Kill's accomplished at Minnesota.

''Its' been huge what he's done,'' Beckman said.

Things to keep an eye on Saturday as the Illini try to break their losing streak, end Minnesota's run and get a homecoming win over the Gophers:

RUNNING NIGHTMARE: Beckman and the Illinois defense have got to be wondering, will the train of high-quality backs lining up for a shot at the battered Illini defense never end?

Not this week.

After facing Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Purdue's Akeem Hunt and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon in consecutive weeks, Illinois gets David Cobb on Saturday.

Illinois didn't come close to containing any of the previous three, giving up at least 175 yards to each. Stopping the 5-foot-11, 220-pound Cobb won't be any easier.

He's over 1,000 yards for the season at 1,013, averages 144.7 yards a game and has five touchdowns.

''He's hard-nosed, runs down hill, takes two, three, four guys to tackle him,'' Beckman said.

RED ZONE: Illinois' defensive struggles have been well-documented, from poor tackling to the big numbers opponents have piled up (the Illini are giving 484.6 yards a game, by far worst in the Big Ten).

The biggest sure thing for opposing offenses so far has been the red zone. In 29 trips this season, teams playing Illinois have scored 29 times - 21 touchdowns and eight field goals.

AT QUARTERBACK: Illinois starter Wes Lunt remains out with a broken bone in his left leg and Beckman said this week that the Gophers will see a mix of senior Reilly O'Toole and sophomore Aaron Bailey. O'Toole is the better passer and Bailey, in limited action, has shown he can be a dangerous runner.

While offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said this week he was still trying to figure out how to use the two together, Kill said the combination in Cubit's hands could pose problems for the Gophers.

''From an offensive standpoint Coach Cubit is a nightmare to prepare for,'' Kill said. ''He's a great person adjusting to the personnel that he has.''

OPPORTUNISTIC GOPHERS: Minnesota leads the Big Ten in interceptions and is sixth in the country with 11. The Gophers are also second in the conference in turnovers forced with 18.

Two Gophers have returned picks for touchdowns, linebacker De'Vondre Campbell in the win over Michigan and defensive back Jalen Myrick against Middle Tennessee State.

ALL GRAY: Illinois will try out a new look Saturday and maybe try to conjure up a little homecoming magic from its past.

The all-gray ''Gray Ghost'' uniforms are part of the Illini's new set of uniforms from Nike. The gray jerseys and pants are meant to pay tribute to Illini great Red Grange, the Galloping Ghost, whose six-touchdown homecoming performance 90 years ago helped Illinois beat Michigan.


Follow David Mercer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davidmercerap