Minnesota, Illinois both desperate for first win
Football players get fewer chances to prove themselves than other athletes. In the pandemic-shortened 2020 Big Ten Conference season, teams’ opportunities to play games have gone down by at least 25 percent.
That makes Minnesota’s trip to Illinois on Saturday even more important for both squads. Off to 0-2 starts overall and in the conference, neither team can afford an 0-3 beginning with tougher opponents waiting in the wings.
“This league is really, really tough,” Golden Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said after his team’s 45-44 overtime loss at Maryland last week. “It doesn’t matter who you play. We were a first down or two away from finishing that game and just weren’t able to.”
Fleck added Monday, “We’ve got a lot of really good players, but they’re just inexperienced and they’re getting experience right now. Especially with the COVID season, you usually benefit from all that offseason work, but everybody’s in the same boat right now, and we got to find a way to be better.”
After contending for the Big Ten West title last year before losing the last game at home to Wisconsin, Minnesota started this season in the Top 25 at No. 21. However, the Gophers’ defense has allowed 94 points in the first two games, and the kicking game has sputtered badly.
In the opener, Minnesota took a 49-24 home loss against Michigan. Last week at Maryland, after scoring in overtime to draw within a point, Minnesota kicker Brock Walker pushed the PAT kick wide right to end the game.
That failure accentuated the Gophers’ issues on defense. A Terrapins team that managed just a field goal in a one-sided loss at Northwestern the prior week lit up Minnesota for 675 total yards. The Minnesota defense hasn’t been able to stop the run or cover receivers.
“So many young players on defense,” Fleck said. “So many guys that are inexperienced … they’ve got to be able to build that leather skin. That’s part of the process.”
Disappointment at failing to meet high internal expectations is also part of the story with the Fighting Illini. With their most experienced team in coach Lovie Smith’s five years, they were hoping to follow a rare bowl bid with a winning season.
Instead, their defense has been strafed through the air. After allowing five touchdown passes to Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz in a 45-7 loss on Oct. 23, Illinois gave up 371 passing yards and two scores to Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell last week in a 31-24 setback.
In two games, the Illini have permitted opponents to complete 49 of 56 passes.
“We have to play better pass defense than that,” Smith said. “We played the run fairly well the past couple of games. Tough loss, but a lot of things to build on for this week.”
The Illini played last week’s game without starting quarterback Brandon Peters (COVID-19), lost Matt Robinson to injury in the first quarter, and Isaiah Williams also was out due to contact-tracing protocol.
Coran Taylor nearly led the team back from a 31-10, fourth-quarter deficit by throwing for 273 yards and two scores in the game, but a potential game-tying drive fizzled out at the Purdue 8-yard line when his fourth-and-10 pass to Mike Epstein came up 3 yards shy of a first down.
“I knew what he was capable of and he played really well,” offensive lineman Kendrick Green said of Taylor.
–Field Level Media