CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) In a rebuilding season for Illinois, even the homecoming opponent is coming to town with a winning record and payback on its mind.
For the second time in three season Illinois (2-5, 1-3 Big Ten) has lined up Minnesota as its homecoming opposition. Last time the Illini upset a Golden Gophers team that competing for a Big Ten West title, winning 28-24 on a late fumble returned for a touchdown.
Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner was there, and he says it was one of the first things coach Tracy Claeys stressed to the Golden Gophers (5-2, 2-2) this week. Not that Claeys needed to, Leidner said.
''Guys are hungry and excited to go down there and redeem ourselves,'' the redshirt senior said.
The Gophers are coming off a comeback win of their own, 34-32 over Rutgers, a team Illinois beat by 17.
But after last week's 41-8 los at Michigan, the Illini aren't talking about their win two seasons ago or the win over Rutgers two weeks ago.
''We lost big,'' first-year coach Lovie Smith said. ''This isn't a week to talk about any of us, improvement we've made.''
Smith refuses to discuss injuries with reporters, leaving everyone outside his team guessing the this week and last about who would start at quarterback with injuries to usual starter Wes Lunt (back), backup Chayce Crouch (shoulder). Third-string quarterback Jeff George Jr., the son the former NFL QB, started at Michigan and could see the field again this week. If so, Smith thinks the redshirt freshman will show he learned a lot from his 4-15, 95-yard day at Michigan.
''I think, traditionally, yes, you get that,'' Smith said. ''When you get out in the game you learn an awful lot about how life really is under center.''
The Gophers will benefit from cornerback KiAnte Hardin being back in the starting lineup. The sophomore was out last Saturday against Rutgers, one of five players barred from TCF Bank Stadium because of a restraining order later requested by an alleged victim of a Sept. 2 incident who works at the stadium on game days. Hardin, who's tied for the team lead with two interceptions, also missed three games earlier this season during a team-issued suspension during a police investigation that produced no arrests or charges.
Because the Gophers are on the road, though, Hardin will be free to play against the Illini.
''One of our 11 best players, and we count on him when he's available to us,'' Claeys said.
The Gophers started three junior-college transfers on the offensive line last week with left tackle Donnell Greene, right guard Vincent Calhoun and right tackle Garrison Wright. Only one starter, center Tyler Moore, was in the lineup last season. But the group has not only helped pave the way for a productive rushing attack led by Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, but it has allowed only five sacks, the fewest in the Big Ten and eighth-fewest in FBS.
''Every single week before the game, on Friday, we get a tips and reminder sheet,'' left guard Jared Weyler said. ''And every single week, one of those bullet points is no sacks and no hits. We take a lot of pride in protecting Mitch.''
In a season of run-heavy offenses in the Big Ten, Minnesota and Illinois are among the teams most reliant on the ground game. The Gophers average 212.4 rushing yards a game and Illinois averages 173.7.
RED ZONE PROSPECTS
Minnesota's scoring defense hasn't been bad, giving up 22.9 points a game. But when Illinois finds itself in the Gopher red zone, the Illini have to like their chances. The Gophers' red zone defense is the worst in the Big Ten, giving up scores on 19 of the 20 trips. Thirteen of those have been touchdowns.
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