Gophers, Illini see similarities in their success -

Gophers, Illini see similarities in their success

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) -- When Illinois takes its place on the west sideline at Memorial Stadium Saturday morning, the Illini will stare across the field at a surprise 5-1 team, bouncing back from a one-win season under a coach hired to build up a program with a limited history of success.

Sound familiar? It should.

Just a year ago, Illinois was in much the same position -- rolling to a nine-win season and a Rose Bowl berth that no one predicted behind Ron Zook, a coach with something to prove.

Now Minnesota is, alongside Northwestern, the Big Ten's big surprise, and the Golden Gophers and head coach Tim Brewster face their biggest test so far Saturday.

The similarities between Zook's rise and his own aren't lost on Brewster.

"I have a lot of respect because he went through a lot of adversity early on. I think they won one Big Ten game his first two years but he stuck with the plan that he had and now he is getting rewards from it," said Brewster, who started at tight end for the Illini in 1982 and '83.

"Obviously, we are on a similar path."

Brewster, Zook said, has done a good job of recruiting good players, something Zook is noted for.

"You've got to get out and sell your program, and he's done that," said Zook.

Illinois isn't surprising anyone this year. But at 3-2 and 1-1 in the Big Ten, they're among the half dozen conference teams with a winning record.

The biggest reason might be quarterback Juice Williams, and Brewster and his defense say controlling the junior will be their priority.

Michigan didn't last Saturday, and Williams ran for two touchdowns and threw two more on his way to piling up a Michigan Stadium-record 431 combined yards in the Illini's 45-20 win.

Minnesota linebacker Steve Davis said it will take more than one defender to bring Williams down when he takes off with the ball. "When he runs, he's like a fullback," Davis said.

Brewster said the Gophers must bring down Williams down when he runs the ball, just as they did last week against Indiana quarterback Kellen Lewis.

Minnesota held Lewis, Indiana's double-threat quarterback, to 167 yards passing and 18 rushing in a 16-7 win.

Williams said he left Michigan with bumps, bruises and aches, and expects more of the same from Minnesota's defense. The Gophers give up yardage -- 226.5 yards a game passing and 127.8 on the ground -- but they're only allowing 18 points a game.

"They're physical, they play with a lot of confidence, they have a winning record right now," Williams said. "I anticipate them playing to the last second of the game because of what happened last year."

Last year? If the Gophers need a little extra motivation, they might recall that Illinois breezed through Minneapolis and pocketed a 44-17 win, one of the Illini's easiest of the season.

If that's not enough incentive, Illinois decided Minnesota would make the perfect homecoming opponent this year.

"They maybe think they're going to come in and walk all over us," Minnesota defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg said.

Zook talked this week like a man wary of a letdown after the win over Michigan. He implored fans to pack Memorial Stadium and make noise and he talked often about how the Gophers are a changed football team. He warned that, if Illinois doesn't take Minnesota seriously, Saturday could be a long day in Champaign.

"Minnesota will come in here with something to prove," he said.

For his part, Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber agreed with Zook.

"Hopefully," he said, "we can go out and show Illinois we are a different team than last year."

Weber says the Gophers are playing better football because they've now spent more than a year working the current staff.

It shows in Weber's production. He's throwing for 238 yards a game with eight touchdowns and just two interceptions.

His top target by far is receiver Eric Decker, who through six games has 50 catches for 696 yards -- best in the Big Ten by more than 300 yards. Decker caught 13 balls for 190 yards against Indiana.

No other Minnesota receiver has more than 15 catches, but Weber says he's seen no reason so far to spread the ball around any more than he has.

"The kid catches the ball," he said. "What's the matter with that."

Weber and Decker should test Illinois' pass rush and coverage.

Illinois is giving up 211 yards passing a game this season and almost 30 points a game.

But the Illinois defense -- after hearing Zook complain for weeks that they played without emotion and weren't making tackles -- may have turned a corner at Michigan.

The Wolverines threw for 250 yards, but they ran for just 69. Illini linebacker Brit Miller says the defense forced Michigan to throw by stopping the Wolverines in running situations.

"We did win on first and second downs," he said. "We did our jobs."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

Powered by Frankly