Gophers, Illinois are both reeling
Minnesota can become bowl eligible with win
MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota can become bowl-eligible with a win over Illinois this weekend while the Illini must beat the Gophers -- and three more teams -- just to get any consideration at all. But neither team has much fire heading into their game.
The Gophers (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) entered the season with serious Rose Bowl aspirations, got off to a 5-0 start and were ranked as high as 13th in the country. But their blowout loss to Michigan State last weekend marked their second consecutive defeat, and their Big Ten title hopes seem all but faded.
For a team that's played in the Sun (twice), Music City and Micronpc.com bowls over the past five years, anything less than a New Year's Day bowl will be a disappointment.
"All of a sudden we've got high expectations and now we've lost two football games," Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. "My feeling is that we're either getting better or getting worse. If you look at us, we're going the wrong way."
For starters, Minnesota's powerful running game has fallen off -- much like the Gophers fell out of the Top 25 poll this week. At one point this season, the Gophers were averaging 332.2 yards rushing per game -- Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III were averaging a combined 260.
But in their previous two losses to Michigan and Michigan State, the Gophers averaged only 145.5 yards on the ground. And opposing defenses have harassed first-year starting quarterback Bryan Cupito.
Cupito has been hard on himself for mistakes he made in the losses, but Mason hasn't been as quick to criticize.
"You're going to have some ups-and-downs," Mason said. "A lot is being thrown at him. To go up there, with the spotlight on you, that's a unique position."
Illinois' starting quarterback situation will be even more unique. That's because coach Ron Turner, as of Thursday, still wasn't sure who his starter would be against the Gophers.
Chris Pazan, Brad Bower and Tim Brasic competed in practice to start in place of Jon Beutjer, who was benched after a poor second-half against Michigan on Saturday.
"Hopefully, we'll make a decision on who gives us the best chance to win and that young man will go out there and play great football and we won't have to talk about this again," Turner said.
Center Duke Preston said he doesn't have a preference to who gets the start.
"I think our offense runs effectively with all three of those guys," Preston said.
Illinois' offense hasn't been too bad, but their defense has been awful. The Illini (2-5, 0-4) are ranked next-to-last in total defense in the Big Ten -- they've given up a conference-high 27 touchdowns and opponents are averaging 430.3 yards a game.
That's one spot below Minnesota's defense -- the Gophers have improved but are still allowing an average of 428.9 yards per game.
"We worked too hard this summer," Gophers linebacker Terrance Campbell said. "We lost two games, there ain't nothing we can do about that but win the rest of them. ... The only way you win the rest of them is win the first one Saturday."
Indeed, Minnesota's hopes for a Jan. 1 bowl game will be affected greatly on its ability to win its four remaining games.
Still, Illinois' situation is far graver. The Illini have already topped last year's record, although besting a 1-11 mark isn't exactly an impressive feat.
Winning their final four games seems highly unlikely for the Illini, but they can at least build some confidence.
"These guys are a great group of kids and they're very determined to go out and get this thing turned around and get some wins," Turner said. "I think they realize that we are close and it can be done and it will be done and we're going to continue to work until it gets done."