Minnesota looks for big November push, beginning with Illinois

Field Level Media

October 31, 2023 at 7:02 am.

Minnesota will try to become bowl eligible when it hosts Illinois in a Big Ten Conference matchup on Saturday afternoon in Minneapolis.

The Golden Gophers (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) are looking for their third win in a row after knocking off then-No. 24 Iowa and Michigan State in their two most recent games. They sit in a four-way tie for first place in the West Division along with Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck told his team to focus solely on this week’s game against Illinois and not to get caught up in the division standings.

“When you get to November, the people that don’t win in November don’t have a chance,” Fleck said. “We’re all at a point where every game matters. That’s what we told our team. We made it to November, where it matters. Now what we do with that is up to us.

“One-game championship seasons. The only thing on our mind is Illinois. Period.”

Illinois (3-5, 1-4) is coming off a bye as it prepares to travel north. The Fighting Illini have lost three of their last four games, including a brutal 25-21 loss to Wisconsin in their most recent contest that included an 18-point fourth-quarter comeback by the Badgers.

Illinois coach Bret Bielema took advantage of the bye to lead a few additional practices and take part in recruiting trips before turning his focus to Minnesota.

Bielema is 9-0 all-time against the Golden Gophers, including 2-0 since he took over at Illinois in 2021. The Fighting Illini have not won three games in a row against Minnesota since 1993-95.

Instead of speaking about his success against the program, Bielema instead focused on Minnesota’s strengths. He said Fleck always leads a strong team.

“Though it’s different faces (from last year’s meeting), it’s a lot of the same content,” Bielema said. “They’re going to run the football. They’re very efficient in what they do. Their quarterback is really a good game manager. Their defense is extremely aggressive. …

“It’s a challenging week.”

Minnesota quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis has completed 54.6 percent of his passes for 1,123 yards, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. His top target is wideout Daniel Jackson, who has 36 catches for 507 yards and six touchdowns.

Fleck said Kaliakmanis was showing improvement each week not only as a passer but also in terms of everything from pocket movement to decision-making to leadership.

“I just see more confidence in him building the more he plays,” Fleck said. “He’s doing those things better than he did at the beginning of the year. You can see this presence starting to form with him.”

On the ground, Minnesota running back Darius Taylor leads the team with 591 rushing yards and four touchdowns. He is averaging 5.7 yards per carry.

Meanwhile, Illinois quarterback Luke Altmyer has completed 63.2 percent of his passes for 1,671 yards, 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Speedy wide receiver Isaiah Williams has a team-high 46 receptions for 562 yards and one score.

Kaden Feagin is Illinois’ top rusher with 329 yards and two touchdowns. The 250-pound running back is averaging 4.9 yards per carry.

This will be the 76th meeting between the programs. Minnesota leads the all-time series 40-32-3.