Big Game Hunting: Illini’s turn to meet the business end of Gophers’ destructive O-line

The picks are in for Illinois-Minnesota, Navy-Notre Dame, Iowa-Northwestern, Michigan State-Purdue, Auburn-Texas A&M and more.

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Miami-Ohio v Minnesota

The Gophers’ offensive line is the Big Ten’s best.

Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

When former Hillcrest running back Mar’Keise Irving arrived at Minnesota, the nickname “Bucky” was among his personal belongings.

His Gophers teammates wouldn’t stand for it. Not with a certain bitter rival’s mascot going by the name of Bucky Badger.

Thus, “Bucko” Irving was born.

Gotta love college football, don’t you? It’s always so colorful.

Illinois (+15) at No. 20 Minnesota (11 a.m., ESPN2) is the continuation of an unexpected coming-out party for Irving and fellow freshman running back Ky Thomas. It’s also a chance to recognize the excellence of a best-in-the-Big Ten offensive line that’s the main reason the Gophers are in the initial College Football Playoff rankings and in the driver’s seat as they seek their first West division title.

(Note: They weren’t ranked in the latest AP Top 25, but we’ll be using CFP rankings in this column for the rest of the season.)

Thomas is coming off back-to-back 100-yard games. Irving is, too, and scored two touchdowns in last week’s steamrolling of Northwestern. Even linebacker Derik LeCaptain got in on the action against the Wildcats, rushing for a 20-yard score on his first career carry.

It’s likely none of those three would’ve touched the ball on offense if not for the season-ending injuries that have knocked veteran running backs Mohamed Ibrahim, Trey Potts and Bryce Williams out of the equation.

Why have the Gophers been able to withstand those setbacks and lead the West at 4-1 (6-2 overall)? Center John Michael Schmitz (Homewood-Flossmoor), guard Blaise Andries and 6-9, 380-pound tackle Daniel Faalele keep destroying anything that moves.

“Some of our best players are our offensive linemen,” coach P.J. Fleck said, “and you’ve got to build around your best players.”

The Illini defense — like Northwestern’s, well below average against the run — is going to get a face full of see-if-you-can-stop-this no matter who’s in the Gophers’ backfield.

“We do what we can do,” Fleck said. “We don’t just sit there and put the square peg into the round hole.”

Round Pegs by 14, bucko.


Air Force (-2½) vs. Army (10:30 a.m., Ch. 2): Some early service-academy football never misses the spot. Air Force, which already smacked Navy around, can win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy with a “W” in its first neutral-site game against Army since 1965. Falcons, 31-24, in Arlington, Texas.

Navy (+21) at No. 10 Notre Dame (2:30 p.m., Ch. 5): The Midshipmen won a game without completing a single pass last week, but this isn’t one of Navy’s stronger running teams and isn’t as strong a squad overall as the Irish are accustomed to encountering in this respectful rivalry. You know what that means: Upset! No, not really. Irish, 34-10.

Michigan v Michigan State

Walker has been next to unstoppable.

Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

No. 3 Michigan State (-3) at Purdue (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7): The Spartans’ Kenneth Walker III is the nation’s leading rusher and ought to be getting more Heisman buzz than he is. He won’t completely go off on the Boilermakers, who are solid, if unappreciated, defensively, but, man, the dude’s nose for the end zone. Sniff, sniff — MSU, 24-20.

No. 13 Auburn (+4½) at No. 14 Texas A&M (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2): Can Tigers QB Road Bo Nix get it done against a rested Aggies defense that might be the SEC’s second-best behind Georgia’s? Yes, in case you were wondering, Road Bo Nix and Home Bo Nix are different people. A&M, 24-17.

No. 22 Iowa (-12) at Northwestern (6 p.m., BTN): Pat Fitzgerald’s record against Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes? Try 9-6 on for size. But note: When the Wildcats do lose in this series, they lose big — by an average of 18.2 points under Fitzgerald. Hawkeyes, 28.2-10.

No. 4 Oregon (-7) at Washington (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7): The Huskies are excellent at defending against the pass. Here’s what else they’re good at: nothing. The Ducks, meanwhile, need to back up the playoff committee’s belief in them or it’ll go away in a hurry. Is this a chalky week or what? Ducks by 10.

My favorite favorite: No. 5 Ohio State (-15) at Nebraska (11 a.m., Fox-32): As my favorite favorite last week, the Buckeyes played terrible pass defense, left an egregious number of points on the field and — so sue me — failed to completely grind Penn State into dust. Cue: their most thorough performance of the season.

My favorite underdog: Missouri (+40) at No. 1 Georgia (11 a.m., ESPN): The Bulldogs will do whatever they want against Mizzou’s astonishingly bad defense, but what coach Kirby Smart really wants is to keep his best guys healthy and get a bunch of backups into the game. Run the ball, drain the clock, get out with an easy “W” — just not a 40-point one.

Last week: 6-3 straight-up, 4-5 vs. the spread. That’s back-to-back 4-5s, my first two losing weeks of the season. Alas, there is no bottom to my well of shame.

Season to date: 56-28 straight-up, 47-36-1 vs. the spread.

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