CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Minnesota is just two wins from securing eligibility for a bowl game and the Gophers get a golden opportunity this weekend to lock up a victory.
The Gophers visit Illinois on Saturday and will face a reeling program that has lost its defensive coordinator, its best passer and its best rusher in the past two weeks. Coach Lovie Smith's team has also lost three straight games and five of six.
Minnesota (4-4, 1-4 Big Ten) has hopes of reaching its first bowl game under coach P.J. Fleck. Last year, the Gophers went 5-7 and missed out. After Illinois, they have back-to-back home games against Purdue and Northwestern before the regular-season finale at rival Wisconsin, where they have not won since 1994.
Redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan will get the start again at quarterback for Minnesota after an excellent performance in beating Indiana last week in his first career start. True freshman Zack Annexstad won the job in fall camp, hurt his ankle in the third game, played through it rather ineffectively and then suffered an unspecified midsection injury in a loss at Nebraska on Oct. 20.
Morgan had the first 300-yard passing game last week for the Gophers since 2015, and may have secured the starting role even if Annexstad gets healthy.
"Zack is still banged up a little bit, and I think Tanner being healthy, and he's earning opportunities he's earned the right to play," Fleck said. "And it's not like you have a starter that's 30-2 that you're saying, OK, when he gets hurt he comes back, even if he's 85, 90 percent we're going to play him because he gives us the best chance to win."
Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson resigned last Sunday, citing health issues out of his control, after overseeing one of the worst units in the nation. Over the past six games, Illinois has given up 263 points and surrendered 3,471 yards. True freshman quarterback M.J. Rivers, who had wrested the starting job away from senior AJ Bush, suffered a concussion in a loss to Maryland last week and is expected to miss the Minnesota game. Bush is expected to start at quarterback on Saturday. Freshman Matt Robinson will provide backup if Rivers remains sidelined due to concussion protocol.
Running back Mike Epstein, who along with Reggie Corbin has provided the few offensive bright spots this season, is likely out with an unspecified foot injury.
"Mike is getting better," Smith said. "I don't know exactly how much better with Mike, but when you miss another game, you know something is going on."
Sophomore running back Ra'Von Bonner looks to get more playing time for Illinois (3-5, 1-4) in Epstein's absence.
Minnesota junior Tyler Johnson leads the Big Ten with 807 receiving yards and is also tied for the conference lead with eight touchdowns. With four games remaining, he needs 319 yards to break Ron Johnson's all-time single season record of 1,125 yards in 2000. With four straight 100-yard games, Johnson has also matched Eric Decker's program record.
"It actually means a lot to be able to do that, put my name in the books like that, but one thing about me is I'm just going to continue to work hard and never get complacent," Johnson said.
Mohamed Ibrahim is expected to return as the starting tailback on Saturday after being held out of the last game because of an undisclosed injury. Despite playing in only five games, the redshirt freshman leads the team with 464 rushing yards.
Smith will call the defensive plays for Illinois in the absence of Nickerson, whom Smith has known and worked with since 1996, including their time in the NFL. Assistant Rob Wright will coach the linebackers and Smith said other staff will take on additional duties.
"We have a plan in place for what we're going to do," Smith said. "I've been involved with the defense, and I'll call the plays defensively this week."
STILL A CHALLENGE
Illinois is still reeling from a 63-33 shellacking at Maryland last weekend, while Minnesota is coming off the impressive 38-31 win over Indiana. Despite being favored by nearly 10 points over Illinois, Fleck says he understands the challenge.
"We're looking forward to going on the road and playing a good Illinois team that has a lot of athletes." He said. "There are athletes all over the place, whether you're talking about their defense or their quarterback. They love to run the football. It's going to be a great challenge for our football team to go on the road and have to find a way to win."