3DownNation’s CanCon Game of the Week: Minnesota at Illinois

Photo courtesy: Michael Glasgow | Illinois Athletics

Finally, the finishing pieces of the college football puzzle are in place.

With MACtion already in the books on Wednesday, the Pac-12 becomes the last football bowl subdivision conference to resume play Saturday. All in all, 22 more Canadians will see their teams take the field for the first time in Week 10. That makes my job just a little bit more difficult but you can continue to rely on 3DownNation for all the latest information on Canadians in the NCAA.

Last week was a rough one for predictions. Only 14 of the 22 games featuring Canadians went my way and Texas successfully upset Oklahoma State in overtime to take last week’s Game of the Week, matching my spread pick but not the straight up selection. I’ve still hit on a respectable 82-of-113 games this year.

This is another big week but even with the new conferences in action, it is actually our first Big Ten feature matchup that gets top billing as the CanCon Game of the Week.

Minnesota (-7) at Illinois
Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL
Saturday, November 7 at 12:30 p.m. PST/ 3:30 p.m. EST
Where to View: 
Big Ten Network

The higher the expectations, the harder the fall.

After finishing a win away from a Big Ten title game appearance a year ago, Minnesota entered the 2020 season as a top 25 ranked program and the favourite to take the West Division berth away from Wisconsin.

Thus far, things have not gone as expected. First, there was an embarrassing season-opening blowout loss to Michigan, then the Golden Gophers fell victim to a furious comeback from Maryland to lose in overtime a week ago. Three weeks in, Minnesota sits at the bottom of the Big Ten standings, winless and hemorrhaging points to the tune of 47 against per game.

The lofty goals for P.J. Fleck’s fourth season at the helm now seem out of reach, but Minnesota hopes to right the ship against an equally winless Illinois team.

With much lower expectations going into the season, Lovie Smith’s Fighting Illini got shellacked by Wisconsin in the opener and came up short against Purdue. That second performance wasn’t helped by a rash of players, 14 in total, that weren’t able to play under the Big Ten’s stringent COVID-19 protocols.

The most important among them was starting quarterback Brandon Peters, who will be out 21 days following a positive test for the virus. Highly-recruited backup Isaiah Williams was also placed on the shelf and won’t be able to play Saturday either, forced to quarantine 14 days for contact tracing purposes after his roommate also tested positive.

Third stringer Matt Robinson was the next man up but he too was knocked out last week with an ankle injury. If he’s not ready to go this week, the job of steering the ship will once again fall to fourth stringer Coran Taylor, who went 17-of-29 for 273 yards, two touchdowns and two picks in his first ever game action against Purdue.

An inexperienced quarterback under centre will be music to the ears of a struggling Minnesota defence, though it is a tune they’ve heard before. Through the first two weeks, the Golden Gophers have allowed 619 combined passing yards to two fresh faced starters in Joe Milton and Taulia Tagovailoa.

Taylor doesn’t come with the same a hype as those two, but the Minnesota pass defence still has to raise its level of performance if it wants to record its first victory Saturday. A key piece to accomplishing that feat will be Canadian corner Benjamin St-Juste, a graduate transfer from Michigan who burst onto the scene last year as one of the conference’s best lockdown defenders.

He had one of his worst career games against Maryland and a bounce back will be crucial to shutting down Illinois. His presence will be even more important this week. St-Juste is a vocal leader both on and off the field, something that Minnesota will have to lean on with defensive coordinator Joe Rossi unable to coach this game after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier this week.

On the Illinois side, the recipe for putting an inexperienced quarterback at ease will be lean on the run game. That worked in a loss a week ago, in no small part due to the effort’s of London, Ontario’s Chase Brown.

While senior Mike Epstein is the chief back in the rotation, Brown showed off plenty of big-play ability to lead the team in yardage with just 10 carries against Purdue. Illinois will use both backs often and frequently simultaneously in two-back sets, looking to exploit a Minnesota run defence that has been almost as bad as its coverage so far.

Of course, the Golden Gophers will also be seeing double when they are on offence. On the defensive side of the ball, it is Chase’s identical twin brother Sydney Brown who runs the show for Illinois from the safety position. Sydney was third team All-Big Ten at the position a year ago and he’s tied for the team lead in tackles again this year.

That’s not an accolade you generally want from your safeties, but Brown has a penchant for big hits, knocking a ball loose in the season opener and sending a receiver cartwheeling out of bounds last week. He also has four career interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown last year, proving he’s no slouch in the deep zone either.

Brown won’t have to worry about freshman Canadian offensive lineman Tyrell Lawrence for this one, he looks set to redshirt, but the Golden Gophers have plenty of offensive talent that should give Illinois fits. Despite their dismal record, running back Mohamed Ibrahim currently leads the nation in rushing yards per game, posting 347 and six touchdowns through the first two contests.

Then there is All-American receiver Rashod Bateman, who is set to be a top NFL Draft pick in 2021 and has 451 receiving yards over the course of his last three home outings. With quarterback Tanner Morgan at the helm, the Minnesota offence hasn’t been the team’s problem so far and they look like too much on paper for the COVID-19 ravaged Illini to match.

This is the perfect game to put the Golden Gophers back on track and I expect the margin to be more than a touchdown.

Pick straight-up: Minnesota
Pick against the spread: Minnesota (-7)

Other Week 10 NCAA games featuring Canadians

Eastern Michigan at Kent State
CanCon: Jake Julien, P, SR (EMU), Sidy Sow, LG, JR (EMU), Daniel Johnson, LT, SO (KSt), Reignings Awah, DE, FR (KSt)
Result: 27-23 Kent State

Western Michigan at Akron
CanCon: Jack Taylor, OL, FR (WMich)
Result: 58-13 Western Michigan

Buffalo at Northern Illinois
CanCon: Dominic Johnson, REC, SR (Buf), Cole Burniston, TE, SO (Buf), Gabe Wallace, OG, SO (Buf), Deondre Dorion, OL, FR (Buf), Woodly Appolon, FS, JR (NIU)
Result: 49-30 Buffalo

Ohio at Central Michigan
CanCon: Kurtis Rourke, QB, FR (Ohio), Peter Kemeni, CB, FR (Ohio), Mohamed Diallo, DT, SR (CMU), Cade Cote, DL, FR (CMU)
Result: 30-27 Central Michigan

Bowling Green at Toledo
CanCon: Geri Theodore, DE, FR (Tol)
Result: 38-3 Toledo

No. 11 Miami (-10.5) at NC State
CanCon: Daniel Joseph, DE, SR (NCSt)
Pick: Miami

San Jose State at San Diego State (-9.5)
CanCon: Daniel Okpoko, DE, SO (SDSt)
Pick: San Diego State

No. 9 BYU (-3.5) at No. 21 Boise State
CanCon: Isaiah Bagnah, OLB, FR (BSt)
Pick: BYU

West Virginia at No. 22 Texas (-6.5)
CanCon: Alonzo Addae, FS, SR (WV), Akheem Mesidor, DE, FR (WV)
Pick: Texas

No. 23 Michigan (-3) at No. 13 Indiana
CanCon: Luiji Vilain, DE, SR (Mich), DK Bonhomme, LB, SO (IND)
Pick: Michigan

No. 25 Liberty at Virginia Tech (-14.5)
CanCon: John Kourtis, OL, SO (Lib)
Pick: Liberty

North Carolina (-11.5) at Duke
CanCon: Patrice Rene, CB, SR (UNC)
Pick: North Carolina

Nebraska at Northwestern (-3.5)
CanCon: Barron Miles Jr., REC, FR (Neb)
Pick: Northwestern

Michigan State at Iowa (-6.5)
CanCon: Alaric Jackson, LT, SR (Iowa)
Pick: Iowa

Boston College (-14) at Syracuse
CanCon: Geoff Cantin-Arku, MLB, SO (Syr), Matthew Bergeron, LT, SO (Syr), Tyrell Richards, OLB, JR (Syr), Ben Labrosse, FS, FR (Syr), Patrick Davis, OL, SR (Syr), Damian Alford, REC, FR (Syr), Ezechiel Tieide, REC, SO (BC)
Pick: Boston College

UMass at No. 16 Marshall (-45)
CanCon: Samuel Emilus, REC, JR (Mass), Tyris Lebeau, LB, JR (Mass)
Pick: Marshall

Appalachian State (-17.5) at Texas State
CanCon: Samuel Obiang, NT, SO (TexSt)
Pick: Appalachian State

No. 8 Florida at No. 5 Georgia (-3.5)
CanCon: Lamar Goods, DT, FR (Flo)
Pick: Florida

Houston at No. 6 Cincinnati (-14)
CanCon: Olivier Charles-Pierre, NT, SR (Hou), Bruno Labelle, TE, SR (Cin)
Pick: Cincinnati

Maryland at Penn State (-25)
CanCon: Jonathan Sutherland, FS, JR (PSt), Jesse Luketa, LB, JR (PSt), Theo Johnson, TE, FR (PSt), Malick Meiga, REC, FR (PSt)
Pick: Penn State

Fresno State (-11) at UNLV
CanCon: Alex Dumais, DT, SO (FrSt), Dontae Bull, LT, JR (FrSt)
Pick: Fresno State

Arizona at Utah (-14)
CanCon: Keegan Markgraf, LS, SR (Utah), Cameron Fietz, QB, JR (Ari), Paris Shand, DE, FR (Ari), Leif Magnuson, OL, FR (Ari)
Pick: Utah

No. 14 Oklahoma State (-12.5) at Kansas State
CanCon: Chuba Hubbard, RB, JR (OkSt), Amen Ogbongbemiga, MLB, SR (OkSt)
Pick: Oklahoma State

Pittsburgh at Florida State (-2)
CanCon: Jared Wayne, REC, SO (Pitt), Liam Dick, OL, FR (Pitt)
Pick: Pittsburgh

UCLA (-6.5) at Colorado
CanCon: Kenny Mestidor, LB, FR (UCLA)
Pick: Colorado

No. 1 Clemson (-5) at No. 4 Notre Dame
CanCon: Ajou Ajou, REC, FR (Clem)
Pick: Clemson

Stanford at No. 12 Oregon (-8)
CanCon: Nick Wiebe, LB, SO (Ore)
Pick: Oregon

Tennessee (-2) at Arkansas
CanCon: Josh Palmer, REC, SR (Tenn)
Pick: Arkansas

South Alabama at No. 15 Coastal Carolina (-18)
CanCon: Enock Makonzo, WLB, JR (CC), Wilt Gabe II, DE, SO (CC)
Pick: Coastal Carolina

Washington State at Oregon State (-2)
CanCon: Henry Kimmins, DB, FR (WashSt)
Pick: Washington State

New Mexico at Hawai’i (-15.5)
CanCon: Nick Mardner, REC, SO (HI)
Pick: Hawai’i

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.