CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — On the visitor’s sideline at Memorial Stadium Saturday, Minnesota will be living the life of a playoff team. With a win, the Gophers will be headed to a bowl for the first time since 2009.
And the urgency that comes with that feeling feels good, wide receiver Derrick Engel said.
“We definitely want to come to Illinois and come in with the mindset that we’ve got to win this one for sure,” said Engel, who will miss the game with an injury. “We want to get to that sixth ‘W’ and qualify for the bowl bid.”
Illinois’ aim will be much lower than the Gophers (5-4, 1-4 Big Ten). Any win will do for the Illini (2-7, 0-5), who have lost six straight, are well out of any bowl discussion and enduring a season of mistakes, bad penalties and blowout losses.
“It seems to be something each week, doesn’t it?” coach Tim Beckman lamented this week, talking in this case about botched snaps that cost the Illini in last week’s 52-22 pasting at Ohio State.
The Gophers were bowl regulars in the last decade, making the postseason in seven of the eight years between 2003 and 2009. But with back-to-back 3-9 seasons, Minnesota has been home for the holidays since. Its schedule the rest of the way — at Illinois, at No. 20 Nebraska and at home against Michigan State — makes Saturday their best shot to go bowling in coach Jerry Kill’s second year.
The Gophers will have to do it with what could be a diminished passing attack. The team confirmed Thursday that both leading receiver A.J. Barker — 30 catches for 577 yards and seven touchdowns — and Engel, who has 10 catches for 215 yards and a touchdown, are out Saturday with injuries.
But five other Gophers have caught at least 11 balls this season. And Beckman says the Gophers’ offense isn’t centered on any one or two players, noting that MarQueis Gray, nominally a quarterback, is also one of those top receivers.
“You see MarQueis out there, all 250 pounds of him out there, at wide receiver,” Beckman said. “They’re utilizing their talent. They’re fitting, trying to do the same things we’re trying to do — fit this here and fit that there.”
Something else Illinois is trying to do is end not just the six-game losing streak it’s endured since a 44-0 win over tiny Charleston Southern back in mid-September, but also the 10-game skid in the Big Ten. That dates back to October 2011 and a win over Indiana.
“It’s about winning a football game, it’s about these players being successful,” Beckman said. “It’s about coming into that locker room on Saturday and feeling good.”
Through the losses, the Illini have talked about defensive confusion in a new system run by new coaches. Similarly, there have been offensive limitations, some of them a product of a new scheme and new leadership on that side of the ball, too.
But some of those limits have been by design. Beckman said this week that Illinois has dialed back its offense to try to protect quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. The junior has missed games this season with both a concussion and an ankle injury, taking a beating while the Illini have given up a conference-worst 32 sacks.
Scheelhaase says he’s healthy now, and hopes the Illini can throw the ball downfield more, giving their offense another dimension.
“And that requires protecting things a little bit longer,” he said. “That’s one thing we’ve looked to implement more so this week.”
Kill sounded more worried this week about Scheelhaase taking off than throwing.
“But we’ve got to keep rush lanes and keep the quarterback inside the pocket and not let him get outside and run around and be able to make a play,” Kill said. “And he’s that type of youngster that can do that and he runs the ball very well.”
The Illini will be missing at least one key player on defense. Linebacker Jonathan Brown, the team’s leading tackler, won’t play Saturday as he nurses an injury suffered against Ohio State. That will leave a hole in what has already been a shaky defense.
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