CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) – Defense has been the strength of Illinois this season, the foundation for a rebound that has the Illini back in the bowl conversation for the first time in three years.
Then it gave up 676 yards and 67 points in a triple-overtime loss at Michigan.
Jeff Horton is pretty sure that won’t be the defense his Minnesota Gophers see Saturday when they travel to Champaign.
“They played really well this year until last week’s game, said Horton, the interim head coach. “I don’t think that’s who they are. I think they’ll obviously want to come out in a different mindset and do some things.”
Illini head coach Ron Zook just hopes he’s right.
A year removed from a three-win season, Zook and Illinois (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten) are looking for win No. 6 and their first trip back to the postseason since the 2008 Rose Bowl.
With the struggling Gophers (1-9, 0-6) in town, you’d think they’d have their ideal opponent.
Zook believes his team, shell-shocked defense included, has put the 67-65 loss to Michigan behind it.
“You don’t have a choice but to shake it off. There is no use dwelling on it,” he said.
He also insists that Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber makes the Gophers an opponent to be feared. His players agree.
“I didn’t know they throw the ball that deep down the field that accurate,” safety Trulon Henry said Tuesday after seeing his first film of Weber. “To see him throw the ball down the field on point, on the money, consistently through the football game, I’d say that’s dangerous.”
Minnesota is a one-win team whose coach, Tim Brewster, was fired at midseason. Weber, however, has looked good and throws for 229 yards a game, fourth in the Big Ten. He has 18 touchdowns and only nine interceptions.
Still, Gopher fans may be more interested at this point in a lost season in sophomore receiver/quarterback MarQueis Gray. He took over for Weber in last week’s 31-8 loss to Michigan State, and showed the kind of running potential Weber lacks.
The fans’ consensus?
“‘We’re glad you put him in. Now he needs to play more,”‘ Horton said, summing up e-mails he received after the game.
Weber says that doesn’t bother him.
“The way the season’s gone, guys are going to start getting some reps,” he said. “My belief is it’s the program before anybody else so if MarQueis can go out there and change up the pace and drive us down and put up points the ultimate point is to get a win.”
Illinois entered the Michigan game ranked 12th in the country in points allowed, 15th in yards allowed per game and 19th in pass defense, all monumental improvements from a year earlier. Teams had driven into the Illinois red zone 27 times and come away with only nine touchdowns.
Then the dam burst.
Michigan scored touchdowns on its last three possessions and four of its last five. Denard Robinson and Tate Forcier combined for more than 400 passing yards. Roy Roundtree had more receiving yards — 246 yards, along with two TDs — than any receiver in the Wolverines’ long football history.
The Illinois defense was embarrassed, Zook said. But by late Saturday night, a round of text-message exchanges between coach and players convinced him they were, for the most part, past it.
If they aren’t, Henry said, that sixth win — and any beyond it — could be tough to get.
“We’ve got a lot of football to be played, and if we keep dwelling on that game, then we’re not going to be able to play up to our potential the rest of the season,” he said. “We’ve got to kick that stuff out of our mind and prepare for Minnesota, and prepare like it’s the Super Bowl for us.”
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