The Gophers are coming off an impressive 44-21 victory over the New Mexico State Aggies in Lac Cruces, N.M. Minnesota rediscovered its running game by rushing for over 300 yards for the first time since 2007 last week.
On special teams, Marcus Jones returned a punt for a touchdown, showing off the explosive speed he possessed before a knee injury put him out his freshman year.
On defense, junior college linebackers Damien Wilson and De’Vondre Campbell showed off their skill at the linebacker position, posting eight tackles a piece.
This Saturday at home, the Gophers have a glorified scrimmage against an awful FCS school in the Western Illinois Leathernecks, who went 3-8 last year. The Leathernecks are coached by former University of Minnesota – Duluth head coach Bob Nielson, who won two national championships with the Bulldogs.
– Minnesota Offense:
Junior running back David Cobb showed flashes of his potential against the Aggies, rushing nine times for 56 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, sophomore tailback Rodrick “Nugget” Williams rushed 16 times for 148 yards and a touchdown. With Donnell Kirkwood and Berkley Edwards out with ankle injuries, the pair will be looked at to step up once again.
Under center, Philip Nelson has struggled with his accuracy this year but I believe this game will present an opportunity for him to work out his inconsistencies. Meanwhile, wide receiver and redshirt freshman Jamel Harbison returns after sitting out the first two games for a violation of team policies. Look for Nelson and the receivers to be active against the Leathernecks early and often.
– Western Illinois Offense:
Quarterback Trenton Norvell has completed more than 65 percent of his passes for 362 yards and two touchdowns this season. Meanwhile, the tailback duo of J.C. Bakerand and Nikko Watson are averaging 95 and 81.5 yards rushing, respectively. Both have a pair of touchdowns to go with the yardage this season. The Leathernecks have run a pretty balanced offense this year, rushing for 437 yards and passing for 374 yards through two games.
Offensive Edge: Minnesota
– Minnesota Defense:
Damien Wilson and De’Vondre Campbell were all over the field for the Gophers last Saturday in Lac Cruces. Wilson made a nice play last week by busting through the line of scrimmage and tackling an Aggie for a loss early in the game. Theiren Cockran, who I predicted would hit double digit sacks this year, recorded his first. The Gophers’ run defense has been impressive this year, outside of a few big plays given up due to missed assignments.
– Western Illinois Defense:
The Leathernecks use a standard 4-3 defense under coordinator Brian Ward. Western Illinois has been impressive defensively, surrendering just 255 yards per game. The Leathernecks have also scored three defensive touchdowns.
Defensive Edge: Minnesota
- Minnesota Special Teams:
Kicker Chris Hawthorne has been solid this year for the Gophers and return man Marcus Jones has been spectacular. Look for Jones to return a kick or a punt for a touchdown in the third consecutive game. And if Minnesota’s offense keeps scoring touchdowns, Hawthorne will be kept busy booting extra points.
– Western Illinois Special Teams:
Western Illinois kicker Nathan Kauffman has missed two extra points and has yet to connect on a field goal. Both of Kauffman’s attempts were blocked in the Hampton game and he missed a 22 yarder in the Quincy game. Whoof!
Special Teams Edge: Minnesota
Jerry Kill knows what it’s like to climb the coaching ranks, so I don’t think he will take Western Illinois head coach Bob Nielson lightly.
– Western Illinois:
Nielson can coach, and I think he will take the Leathernecks to heights the program has never seen before. But until then, they have zero chance of beating a Big Ten team this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nielson and the Leathernecks pull it off at some point, but not this year and not against the Gophers this Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. Nielson is taking over a Western Illinois program that went 3-8 in the FCS last year.
Coaching Edge: Minnesota
Prediction: Minnesota 38, Western Illinois 7
Seeing that the Western Illinois placekicker can’t hit a field goal or extra point, I have a tough time imaging the Leathernecks winning on a time-expiring field goal.
What’s more likely is that Philip Nelson gets back on track and throws for 250 yards and three TDs in the first half.
I think the Leathernecks score their touchdown in garbage time against the Gopher scrubs. Most of the TCF Bank Stadium crowd will be running Saturday errands by the time the fourth quarter rolls around.