Illinois preparing for much-improved Minnesota
A program trying to rebuild under a coach known for his recruiting suffers early, then things start to take off.
It worked at Illinois, which survived a 4-19 start in coach Ron Zook's first two seasons to post nine wins a year ago while appearing in the Rose Bowl for the first time in more than two decades. This season, Minnesota has already made a big jump under second-year coach Tim Brewster.
Illinois (3-2 overall, 1-1 in the Big Ten) hosts the Gophers (5-1, 1-1) in the homecoming game Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN).
"Everybody says they're going to be this year's Illinois,'' said Illini center Ryan McDonald. "We don't want to let that happen to us. Minnesota won five games already. They're nobody to mess around with. They're very much an improved team and playing with confidence and swagger.''
While Minnesota's non-conference schedule can be questioned, the Gophers need one win to gain bowl eligibility. That's more fun than a year ago when the nation's worst defense allowed 519 yards a game and led to a 1-11 record with an 0-8 mark in the Big Ten. By defeating Indiana 16-7 Saturday, Minnesota ended a nine-game conference losing streak.
If nothing else, the Gophers went from brutal (those 11 losses set a school record) to respectable. Brewster, a tight end and captain on the 1983 Illinois team that won the Big Ten title and played in the Rose Bowl, makes his first appearance as a head coach in Memorial Stadium.
"It's his alma mater, and he's going back home,'' said Minnesota junior wide receiver Eric Decker, who leads the nation with 116 yards receiving per game and ranks third with 8.3 catches per game. "It's Illinois' homecoming. It would be a big victory for us, having that first Big Ten road win for him. Everything adding up would make it special.''
Decker, who has four of those TD catches, reminds Brewster of his days as a Denver Broncos assistant when Ed McCaffrey was a sure-handed Broncos receiver.
"Decker is faster, but he's a very similar type receiver, very fearless with outstanding hands and concentration,'' Brewster said. "McCaffrey was a blocker, too. Most of our big runs are a result of Eric's down-field blocking.''
Sophomore quarterback Adam Weber attempted all 183 passes thrown by the Gophers this season, completing 124 for 1,428 yards with eight touchdowns and two interceptions.
Minnesota's biggest improvement came on defense, where six junior-college transfers provided instant help. Indiana was the fourth team in the first six games that the Gophers also played a year ago. Those four teams -- Bowling Green, Florida Atlantic, Ohio State and Indiana -- scored 136 points and were 4-0 against the Gophers last fall. This year, they scored 61 points and were 1-3.
The lowest moment for Minnesota last fall came in a 44-17 loss to Illinois. The Illini built a 34-10 halftime lead while rolling up 429 yards. Illinois finished with 655 yards.
Gaining respectability is one thing, but the Gophers still have a long way to go before ending the league's longest Rose Bowl drought that already stands at 47 seasons. In that regard, Minnesota isn't yet the next Illinois.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.
A look at Minnesota
Record: 5-1 overall, 1-1 in the Big Ten.
So far: Defeated Northern Illinois 31-27, def. Bowling Green 42-17, def. Montana State 35-23, def. Florida Atlantic 37-3, lost to Ohio State 34-21, def. Indiana 16-7.
Coach: Tim Brewster, 6-12 in second season at Minnesota and overall.
Players to watch: QB Adam Weber, WR Eric Decker, LB Lee Campbell, S Tramaine Brock.
Did you know?: Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium will the first stadium built in the Big Ten since Indiana opened Memorial Stadium in 1960.
Quote: "Emotionally and physically, it was draining. We didn't know when our next win would come. It made it tough to come to practice.'' -- Minnesota WR Eric Decker on last year's 1-11 season.