Nov. 4—Beat writer previews the Illini's Big Ten West showdown with the Gophers ahead of Saturday's 2:30 p.m. kickoff at Huntington Bank Stadium in Minneapolis (BTN, WDWS 1400-AM, 93.9-FM, WHMS 97.5-FM):
Three big storylines
Pending full-time move?
Bret Bielema pushed back during Illinois' bye week about Gabe Jacas' positional status. The Illini coach maintained Jacas was still an outside linebacker. With Johnny Newton set to miss the first half of Saturday's game at Minnesota while serving the rest of his targeting ejection suspension from the Illini's 25-21 home loss to Wisconsin on Oct. 21 and Keith Randolph Jr.'s status uncertain after missing the last two games, don't be surprised to see Jacas lining up with his hand on the ground as a defensive lineman.
Jacas has cross-trained between outside linebacker and defensive line for a few weeks now. And that's the plan moving forward through the rest of the season for the physical 6-foot-3, 265-pound versatile defensive player.
"Any time we get a guy as talented as him with power and speed to come in and add value, that's great," Illinois defensive line coach Terrance Jamison said. "Gabe, he's a brawler in there. What made him effective is his speed and his power — the combination of both — and his understanding of playing in the trenches."
Get him the ball
Isaiah Williams has lost his place as the Big Ten's leading receiver the last few weeks.
The Illinois wide receiver has been surpassed by Ohio State's Marvin Harrison Jr. through a combination of several big games by the Buckeyes' future first-round pick and three of the four least productive games of the season from Williams.
Wisconsin held Williams to just four catches for 16 yards the last time out. The St. Louis native also had two carries for eight yards lined up as a running back to better get the ball in his hands. Which remains an emphasis for the Illini this weekend.
"There's no secret he's one of the best players in this league and, really, the country," Illinois quarterback Luke Altmyer said. "Teams prepare for him. When they come up with a game plan, they circle him and try to figure out ways to stop him. We know that, too, but he's just such a special player and so dynamic in space with the ball in his hands.
"No matter what the defense tries to scheme up to try to stop him, he's going to find ways to create explosives and put us in plus territory. It's definitely an emphasis in the game plan — in every game plan we have — to put the ball in his hands."
Illinois offensive line coach Bart Miller entered training camp in August with a fairly good idea which five offensive linemen would constitute the Illini's starters. That was also the last time all five were healthy. An ankle injury for Zy Crisler during training camp limited his reps at a new position after moving to right tackle, and he wasn't at full strength when the season started.
Exposed on the edge, Crisler eventually moved back to right guard with Isaiah Adams kicking out to tackle from left guard. Another injury to Crisler, plus one to new left guard Josh Gesky, further limited the continuity Illinois could build up front, but everyone is healthy heading into the final four games of the regular season.
"Those guys are kind of catching their stride a little bit right at the back half, which is critical," Miller said. "We all wish for a better start, but getting those guys back playing and some continuity developing again (should lead to) being a factor in the outcome of the game and a factor in the offense. All last season, that's what we did. We were able to establish the line of scrimmage and have some success. This year has been up and down."
Two key matchups
Illinois quarterback Luke Altmyer vs. Minnesota safety Tyler Nubin
Altmyer has been the epitome of ball security after his disastrous four-interception game against Penn State. He's thrown just two in his previous five games, and there's at least an argument to be made the one at Maryland could have been pass interference on the Terrapins. Nubin could change all that Saturday. The Gophers' free safety has three interceptions and three pass breakups this season and has been trouble for opposing offenses anchoring the back of the Minnesota defense.
Illinois run defense vs. Minnesota run game
This is mostly a first-half matchup of concern with Illinois missing Newton. The Illini, even with Johnny Newton, rank 87th nationally in rushing defense giving up 161 yards per game on the ground. The Gophers are 43rd nationally in rushing offense despite dealing with a revolving door of available running backs. The latest — fifth-string former walk-on defensive back Jordan Nubin — had 40 carries for 204 yards and two touchdowns in Minnesota's win last week against Michigan State.
One stat that matters
The emphasis on red-zone performance was so high for the Illinois offense this past offseason that Luke Altmyer had three practices as an Illini during spring ball before he ever ran a play from further than 20 yards from the end zone. The extra effort has paid off. The Illini have converted 86.4 percent of its red-zone chances this season, with 16 touchdowns and three field goals. It's an improvement from 2022 both in success rate percent and the touchdown-to-field goal ratio. The only issue? Illinois is getting to the red zone less often this season with 22 red-zone attempts in eight games compared to 51 in 13 games a year ago.
Illinois will win if
... it can manage to make it through the first half without Newton and without falling behind (or at least too far behind). But that's just step one. The Illini need to have an answer for Minnesota's run game and then get a consistent, four-quarter effort from their offense. This is the Big Ten West. Illinois isn't going to find itself in some offensive shootout, but empty quarters like the last one in the loss to Wisconsin have to be avoided.
Minnesota will win if
... its rushing attack can both chew clock and generate some scoring and quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis avoids mistakes. It's something the Antioch graduate with a big arm (but an inefficient one) hasn't always been successful at since becoming the Gophers' starter. Minnesota really only asks him to be a game manager, but seven interceptions to go with seven touchdowns isn't exactly a terrific ratio.