Friday, November 6, 2009

Disappointment in Champaign Leads to Opportunity For Gophers

Two seasons ago, the University of Illinois marched into Ohio Stadium to take on the top-ranked and undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes in a late-season matchup. The Illini was 7-3 and was looking at an outside chance at a nice bowl game. Ohio State was 10-0 and had a 20-game Big Ten winning streak and a 28-game regular season winning streak.

Illinois shocked OSU that day, thanks to the play of sophomore quarterback Isiah "Juice" Williams. The Juice was not particularly spectacular throwing the ball that day (12-22 and 140 yards), but he threw for four touchdowns against no interceptions. Moreover, he rushed 16 times for 70 yards, including some crucial third-down plays on Illinois's final drive to run out the clock. The result was a shocking 28-21 upset victory over the #1 team in the nation. Illinois beat Northwestern the following week and qualified for the school's second BCS berth. The magic ran out in the Rose Bowl against USC, as the Illini lost 49-17. However, coach Ron Zook appeared to have the Fighting Illini on the right track.
In 2008, with a returning Williams at quarterback, the Illini stumbled out of the gate and never really recovered. A year after qualifying for the BCS, the Illini finished a disappointing 5-7. Things have been no better this season. Again, the season started with a loss to Missouri, but this time it was a thumpin', 37-9. After pounding Illinois State the following week, Illinois lost its next five games and started the Big Ten season 0-5, including losses to un-ranked Indiana, Purdue, and Michigan State.

Illinois righted the ship last weekend with an impressive 38-13 victory over enigmatic Michigan, out-scoring the Wolverines 31-0 in the second half. Still, the 2009 season has been an unmitigated disaster for Zook and his charges.

Probably most disappointing has been the play of Williams. After looking to be one of the conference's most exciting players as a sophomore, he has been erratic since. He had a nice bounce-back game last weekend against Michigan (8-11 for 123 passing, 1 TD; 21 carries for 97 yards rushing, 1 TD), but consistency has been his problem.

The team's rushing attack is led rusher by sophomore back Mikel LaShoure, who has averaged almost seven yards per carry in his 435 yards on the ground. He is also coming off consecutive 100-yard games, including 150 yards on 21 carries last week in the win over Michigan. Williams is next with 374 yards on 111 carries, which is evidence of the team's willingness to let the QB keep the ball on the ground. Williams has passed for 1,086 yards and five TD this season, but has also thrown five interceptions. Among his receivers, Williams looks to junior Arrelious Benn (26 catches for 298 yards) and senior Chris Duvalt (11 catches for 158 yards). However, this is a running team.

Illinois has struggled scoring points on offense. Even including last week's 38-point explosion against Michigan, the Illini has scored only 151 points in its eight games, against 207 points surrendered. The Gophers, on the other hand, have scored 211 and surrendered 235 in their nine games.

The Gophers are coming off a victory against Michigan State which should have been far more impressive than the 42-34 final score. The team notched 505 yards of total offense and forced three Michigan State turnovers. QB Adam Weber had the bounceback game is desperately needed, going 19 for 31 for 416 yards and five touchdowns against only one interception, in route to Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors. Still, the school record 17 penalties for a school record 157 yards kept the game in doubt throughout. However, give the Gophers some credit for actually winning the game.

Saturday's game is a big opportunity for the Gophers to make a statement. It's a game they should absolutely win. Even though the Illini is coming off an impressive victory over Michigan, the team is still 2-6 on the season and just 1-5 in Big Ten play. The Gophers are a better team on both sides of the ball and should be able to control the play. The offense should be able to move the ball against the Illinois secondary and the defense should be able to keep an offense which has struggled to score points in check.

If the Gophers will, they'll be 6-4 and bowl-eligible with a non-conference home game against South Dakota State the following weekend. Iowa looms in the season's final week, and going to Iowa 7-4 is a much better situation than what was feared just one week ago. This team is much better than last year's squad which started 7-1, and this year's schedule has been tougher. The Gophers need to demonstrate their improvement by taking care of business at home against an inferior Illinois team on Saturday.

Prediction: Gophers 31, Illinois 14

Note: Following his arrest stemming from his actions outside a campus pizza place over the weekend, Gopher freshman DB Michael Carter will play this weekend against Illinois. The cover man has played a lot this season as the fifth defensive back and should see significant time again this weekend. The highly-recruited freshman out of Pompano Beach, FL was a three-star recruit by the publication and was ranked as the #12 cornerback, and the competing Scouts, Inc. publication had him ranked as the 17th-best corner coming out of high school. Carter is a cousin of Gopher all-time leading tackler Tyrone Carter, who wore the maroon and gold from 1996-1999 and was an All-America selection in 1998 and 1999.

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