Let's not focus on the journey, because it hasn't been pretty at times. But the Gophers enter the final month of the regular season with their destination still in sight: a chance at the Big Ten West division title.
The next step should be taken at Huntington Bank Stadium on Saturday if they find enough offense to defeat a beatable Bret Bielema-led Illinois team. The Gophers should sustain a running game and get enough through the air from quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis to improve to 6-3.
Wait. A beatable Bielema team? Does such a thing even exist for the Gophers?
There are hundreds of Gophers football players — and tens of thousands of fans — through the years who have looked across the field and wondered what it will take to defeat teams led by a man who once was adorned in red and white but now is in orange and blue. Bielema has a hex on the Gophers.
Bielema, who was born in Silvis, Ill., about 120 miles from P.J. Fleck's hometown of Sugar Grove, Ill., was 7-0 against the Gophers while leading the Badgers from 2006-12. He has won both meetings as Illinois' head coach, including last year when the Gophers took a 14-13 lead in the third quarter in Champaign on a Mo Ibrahim touchdown only to lose 26-14. It was a crushing blow to Fleck's quest for a conference title and his chance to dine at one of Indianapolis' fine steakhouses the night before the Big Ten title game.
Bielema has done worse to Fleck's predecessors. The Badgers beat the Gophers by an average score of 39-22 when Bielema was there. That included a 2008 game in which Tim Brewster's squad led 24-17 through three quarters only lose 35-32 with the Badgers getting two touchdowns and two safeties in the fourth.
"We are going to lay on a sword for the next couple of days," Brewster said following a game that cost them Paul Bunyan's Axe. "We're going to bleed this one out hard."
If the Gophers are ever going to break through the Bielema Blockade, they should make it this one. This year is the last chance to win the West and get to Indy before a quartet of Pac-12 schools joins the conference next season and the division format dies.
Picked by some to win the division, the Illini have stumbled to a 3-5 record and just one conference win. Just like at Wisconsin, Bielema has had potent rushing attacks with the Illini. This year's group, however, isn't as prolific as a year ago. Quarterback Luke Altmyer is a threat to scramble. Members of its formidable secondary a year ago are now in the NFL.
Illinois, coming off a bye week, is the second-most penalized team in the conference, which the Gophers will benefit from for a half on Saturday. Defensive tackle Jer'Zhan Newton, one of the best in the country, has to sit out the first half because of a targeting penalty against the Badgers two weeks ago. Paired with fellow tackle Keith Randolph Jr., the Illini are nasty up front. But Fleck appears to have a pumpkin patch where he harvests running backs.
Jordan Nubin came out of nowhere to rush for 204 yards against Michigan State last week. If injured backs Darius Taylor or Zach Evans are available, the Gophers will have a chance to take control of the game. Kaliakmanis should be allowed to spray the ball around to his receivers. Please, P.J., don't ditch the passing game if Kaliakmanis throws an early pick.
Illinois is more capable offensively than Michigan State was, but the Gophers defense, sparked by the return of linebacker Cody Lindenberg from injury last week, is playing as well as it has all season.
There is a path to victory here over a disciplined-challenged Illinois team — a victory that will keep the Gophers division title hopes alive.