Minnesota (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) at Illinois (5-1, 2-1), Saturday, noon ET (Big Ten Network)
Line: Minnesota by 6 1/2, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
Series record: Minnesota leads, 40-31-3.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
The Illini are ranked for the first time since 2011 after a 9-6 win over Iowa, but lost quarterback Tommy DeVito to an ankle injury and his status wasn't known midweek. The Golden Gophers are expected to have star running back Mo Ibrahim return from an ankle injury of his own in a battle that could factor heavily into the Big Ten West race. Illinois coach Bret Bielema has never lost to Minnesota in eight career meetings. He said the Gophers are a “better football team, probably” than last season, when the Illini won 14-6 in Minneapolis.
Illini QB Artur Sitkowski vs. Minnesota defensive backs. Bielema did not announce that Sitkowski would be the starter, but if he does go, it is crucial that he protects the football. Sitkowksi nearly cost Illinois its first win over Iowa since 2008 with an interception near the goal line and a fumble that was returned 80-plus yards for a Hawkeyes score, but was overturned on review. Minnesota ranks second in the FBS as a passing defense (140.6 yards per game) and safeties Jordan Howen and Tyler Nubin came up with interceptions against Purdue on Oct. 1. Sitkowski's 53.1% completion rate must improve.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Minnesota: RB Mohamed Ibrahim. The sixth-year star has a streak of 13 consecutive 100-yard rushing games, the longest active run in the country. He was held out of the previous game on Oct. 1 against Purdue due to an injury, and the Gophers were limited to just 47 rushing yards by the Boilermakers for their lowest total in coach P.J. Fleck’s six seasons.
Illinois: RB Chase Brown. The Illini’s chances in this game may well rest on Brown’s shoulders. Brown is second nationally with 146.5 rushing yards per game. If DeVito can’t play, Minnesota can zero in on Brown to try and make the Illinois one dimensional. But Brown, who averages 5.82 yards per carry, has the patience and a mix of strength and speed to give Minnesota’s sturdy defense problems.
FACTS & FIGURES
The Golden Gophers allow just 222 yards per game and are the No. 1 ranked total defense. ... Minnesota leads the country in time of possession (37:58 per game) and Illinois checks in at No. 8 (34:06). ... Brown leads the country with 879 rushing yards and runs of more than 10 yards (28) entering the week. ... Illini DT Keith Randolph has a sack in his last four games. ... Bielema (10-8 at Illinois) is off to the best start in Champaign since John Mackovic went 11-6-1 in 1988 and 1989.
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