Young Gophers, Illini look for their first Big Ten win

Published 6:48 pm Friday, October 20, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS — In his first season at Minnesota, coach P.J. Fleck has stressed the process of building his program and giving his players experience, even over the results of each game.

Lovie Smith understands Fleck’s position all too well. His young Illinois squad plays at Minnesota on Saturday, with both teams searching for their first win in the Big Ten this season.

“They’ve lost three games in a row,” Smith said of the Gophers, “so they’re going to search for answers, too.”

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In his second year with the Illini (2-4, 0-3), Smith has started 14 true freshmen, the most of any team in the country. No other Big Ten team has started as many as four. The Gophers (3-3, 0-3) have 13 freshmen or sophomores among listed starters on their depth chart, and Fleck said this week that number will grow next season.

Meanwhile, both teams are going through the natural growing pains of youth while hoping to pick up some victories along the way. In their 30-27 loss last week to No. 18 Michigan State, the Gophers started poorly but finished strong.

“After the game, I told them in the locker room: ‘We’re drawing a line the sand,’” Fleck said. “’First half of the season is over. The second half of the season is here.’”

Fleck and his players agreed on six key lessons learned from the first half of the season, one corresponding to each game. Channeling emotion, handling adversity and finishing games were among them.

“We haven’t been able to finish, and when we played Michigan State, we finished that game,” sophomore defensive end Carter Coughlin said. “We just didn’t start. When we’re able to combine our finish from that game with the starts that we’ve had, it’s going to be special. We have to keep working toward that, but it’s coming.”

Here are some key angles to follow with the game:

QB determined

Minnesota’s starting quarterback was going to be a game-time decision between Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft. Rhoda started the first six games of the season but struggled last week against Michigan State’s stout defense in difficult conditions because of rain and wind. Enter Croft, who threw an interception on his first drive, but delivered three fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Tyler Johnson. Croft also is an effective runner.

“This is a competition with each other,” Fleck said. “This is an ability to make each other better. They know that we could possibly need to continue to keep playing both of them at some point throughout the year, so we have to get them both ready. And they know that. And they are handling it in a very mature way because I haven’t necessarily told them what we’re doing.”

Running woes

The Gophers have allowed 213 rushing yards per game in conference games, the second-highest total to Purdue’s 220.3 yards per game. The Spartans ran for 245 yards in last week’s win against Minnesota, and that total included a 28-yard loss on a fumbled punt. Illinois is just ahead of the Gophers, allowing 210 rushing yards per game in conference play after giving up 274 to Rutgers last week.

Injury concerns

Smith announced defensive back Tony Adams, who had started two games, is out for the rest of the season after shoulder surgery. Linebacker Tre Watson, who started five games and is second on the team with 45 tackles, had knee surgery this week and is out for an unspecified number of games. The Illini were already without linebacker Jack Hansen, who tore his ACL in training camp. Four other linebackers were injured last week.

“We have three days where we really put the bulk of our work in,” Smith said. “But when you’re banged up those rules all kind of go out of the window a little bit. If a guy is healthy and ready to go, they’ll be available to play this weekend.”

Minnesota has been without starting safety Antoine Winfield Jr. the past two games and played without wide receiver Phillip Howard and cornerback Kiondre Thomas last week.