Illinois and Minnesota meet with bowl eligibility top goal
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) When Illinois and Minnesota finish playing, no traveling trophy will be hoisted by the winners.
For the Golden Gophers, there will be no prime-time kickoff or top-15 opponent to get pumped up for. Beating the Fighting Illini does not serve these days as a signature victory.
Make no mistake about Minnesota's motivation for Saturday, though. There is plenty to go around.
''They're coming to our house this year, and we're excited about that,'' Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner said. ''It's definitely a game where we've got some revenge for `em.''
The Gophers took a four-game winning streak last season to Illinois, where a slow start and a late fumble led to a 28-24 loss to a team that dropped 24 of its previous 25 Big Ten games.
There's also the matter of qualifying for a bowl game. The Gophers (4-6, 1-5) need to beat Illinois and Wisconsin to be eligible.
''We don't want to go home early,'' defensive tackle Andrew Stelter said.
Following consecutive night games against Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa, which were 15th, first and eighth in the Associated Press rankings at the time, a letdown would be natural for any team. The Gophers, though, learned a hard lesson about that at Illinois last year.
''We definitely won't be making that same mistake this week,'' wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky said.
Furthering the necessity of maximum focus, intensity and effort for the Gophers is the fact that the Illini (5-5, 2-4) are also chasing bowl eligibility. With the regular season finale against rival Northwestern, currently ranked 20th, Illinois also might need to win this one.
''I think it would be a heck of an accomplishment if we could get one of these games and get them to a bowl game,'' interim coach Bill Cubit said. ''We've been through a lot.''
The Illini have shown some life under Cubit, who was promoted from offensive coordinator when Tim Beckman was fired a week before the season opener over allegations of player mistreatment. Four losses have come to teams currently in the Top 25, including three in the top 12 spots: Ohio State, Iowa, North Carolina and Wisconsin. With Penn State, the cumulative record of the five teams that beat them is 44-6.
The schedule for the Gophers has been tough, too. Their six defeats have come to teams with a combined 50-11 mark.
Here are some key angles to know about the game:
Cubit has made no secret of his desire to drop the interim tag from his title, much like Minnesota's Tracy Claeys, who stepped in for Jerry Kill when he retired due to epilepsy-related health trouble. Claeys, the defensive coordinator, was given the job just two weeks after Kill quit.
Like Minnesota, Illinois has an interim athletic director, complicating Cubit's quest. But Illini players have stumped for him to get the job, and Cubit has expressed pride in their competitiveness amid a tumultuous time for sports at the school.
''We're a breath of fresh air around here,'' Cubit said.
The program won't change much from Kill to Claeys, but since the switch the Gophers have opened up their offense. Over the last three games, Leidner has accounted for six total touchdowns, just one interception and an average of 285.7 passing yards per game. Claeys has encouraged offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover to be more aggressive.
''The confidence level has gone up, for the players and the coaches,'' Wolitarsky said.
The Illini are second-to-last in the conference with an average of 131.9 rushing yards per game, but the return of senior Josh Ferguson from a shoulder injury has helped. He has 249 yards from scrimmage over the last two games. Freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn will miss the game because of a concussion.
RUNNING REVIVAL, PART TWO
The Gophers are uncharacteristically 12th out of 14 in the conference in rushing, but Shannon Brooks was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week for his performance at Iowa. He leads the team with an average of 5.6 yards per carry.
Minnesota leads the series 35-29-3, with 10 wins in the last 14 meetings. The last time Illinois traveled here was Nov. 26, 2011, a 27-7 loss that was Ron Zook's final game as coach.
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