MINNEAPOLIS Just three games remain in the 2012 regular season for the University of Minnesota football team. After earning their first Big Ten win against Purdue two weekends ago, the Gophers followed it up with a one-sided loss to the Michigan Wolverines at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota now has two remaining road games on the schedule, and it starts this Saturday when the Gophers head to Champaign, Ill., to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini. Here are five things to watch in this weekend's matchup.
1. Can Minnesota mentally get past last Saturday's loss to Michigan and finally become bowl eligible?
The Gophers had plenty of chances to make a game of it last Saturday against the visiting Wolverines. Minnesota trailed by only a touchdown at halftime and was facing a Michigan team that didn't have dynamic quarterback Denard Robinson on the field.
But the Gophers missed too many opportunities and would up losing 35-13 to drop to 5-4 overall after starting the year 4-0. Minnesota now has three more chances to become bowl eligible by winning its sixth game of the season. This Saturday's game against 2-7 Illinois is a good chance for that.
The Gophers have to put the Michigan loss out of their memories before heading to Champaign, and it sounds as if they've already done so.
"Losing's always tough. For a couple hours, you're pretty down. For the rest of that day, you're frustrated," said Gophers senior linebacker Mike Rallis. "I went and watched the film. We're making good plays. We're making strides. But that's not much of a consolation. By the next day, you're motivated and excited to move forward."
2. With A.J. Barker and Derrick Engel officially out with injuries, which wide receivers will step up in their absence?
Barker, the Gophers' leading receiver, will miss his second straight game due to an ankle injury suffered on a touchdown catch against Purdue. He did not play last Saturday against Michigan despite being on the field in full uniform for pregame warmups. Kill has already taken the suspense out in regards to Barker's status, ruling him out for the Illinois game.
The same is true for Engel, who is second in receiving yards with 215, behind only Barker's 577 yards. Engel had two catches for 45 yards last weekend against Michigan but suffered a hamstring injury that will keep him sidelined against the Illini.
With the top two receivers out, the Gophers will need others to step up and provide targets for quarterback Philip Nelson.
"He's a great receiver and he's definitely missed in our rotation," Nelson said of Barker. "But we've definitely got some other guys who can step up also. I have a lot of faith in all of our receivers, but A.J. is definitely a big loss right now."
3. Can the Gophers defense return to form against a struggling Illinois offense?
For most of the year, the Gophers defense has been stout. Minnesota's passing defense was one of the best in the country entering last weekend's game against Michigan. That was until Wolverines backup quarterback Devin Gardner threw for 234 yards and two touchdowns in Michigan's win.
Illinois' passing attack is one of the worst in the Big Ten. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase averages just 133.6 yards per game through the air -- 10th among Big Ten quarterbacks. He threw for just 96 yards last week on 19-of-34 passing in a loss to Ohio State. The Gophers had success against him last year, sacking Scheelhaase five times in the final game of the season.
"He's a dynamic threat," Rallis said of Scheelhaase. "He can definitely pull the ball down and run and can make guys miss in the open field. He's got some speed. We have to do our best to contain him."
4. Will Rodrick Williams' role increase the rest of the season -- especially against a porous Illinois run defense?
Williams, a true freshman running back, didn't see his first action until the Gophers' sixth game of the year. After carrying the ball nine times combined in his first two games, he had nine carries in each of the last two games. Williams scored his first career touchdown in a win against Purdue and had 38 yards on nine carries last weekend against Michigan.
At 5-foot-11, 238 pounds, Williams provides Minnesota's rushing attack with a different look compared to when Donnell Kirkwood carries the ball. Illinois has allowed 172.3 yards per game on the ground this season, fifth-most in the Big Ten. Williams will likely get his share of carries on Saturday. Can he take advantage of the Illini defense?
"If he learns and matures and all that, I think he's got a chance to be an All-Big Ten back and be a great player in the league," Kill said of Williams. "I don't think there's any question about that. He's big, strong and fast. He's got everything you want."
5. Penalties hurt the Gophers against Michigan. Can Minnesota eliminate those errors against Illinois?
Through nine games, Minnesota is in the middle of the Big Ten when it comes to the most-penalized teams. The Gophers have been flagged a total of 64 times for an average of 55.3 yards per game. Illinois, meanwhile, has been called for the third-fewest penalty yards per game in the conference (46.9).
Last Saturday, Minnesota committed nine penalties for 68 yards. One false start penalty in a 3rd-and-goal situation moved the ball back from the 4-yard line to the 9-yard line. A pass interference penalty on the Gophers defense on 3rd-and-goal gave the Wolverines another chance at the end zone, and Michigan capitalized one play later. Yet another Gophers penalty negated a big run back on a kickoff return.
"I never want a team with a ton of penalties, but you do want an aggressive team, and I felt like we had one on kickoff return, and I felt it was a pretty good play," Kill said. "And it was called and I respect the call and so forth, but I mean from a standpoint I can't say, 'Hey, don't hustle.'"
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