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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Gophers defense will have hands full with Illinois running back Chase Brown

Brown leads the nation with 879 rushing yards in six games, while Minnesota’s run defense is sixth in the country. That’s a grab-your-popcorn matchup when Minnesota faces No. 24 Illinois at 11 a.m. Saturday in Champaign, Ill.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Illinois
Illinois Fighting Illini running back Chase Brown runs the ball against Iowa on Oct. 8, 2022, in Champaign, Illinois. Brown and the Illini will take on the University of Minnesota at home on Saturday.
Ron Johnson / USA Today Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Illinois football coach Bret Bielema said Monday he and University of Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck have differing personalities, but their programs share similar identities.

More than anywhere else, that is apparent in how the Gophers and Illinois have shown abilities to run the ball and play lights-out defense this season.

While Minnesota’s running game had a hiccup without star running back Mo Ibrahim on Oct. 1, Illinois tailback Chase Brown stacked his sixth 100-yard game of the season against a stellar Iowa defense in a 9-6 victory Saturday.

Brown leads the nation with 879 rushing yards in six games, while Minnesota’s run defense is sixth in the country. That’s a grab-your-popcorn matchup when Minnesota faces No. 24 Illinois at 11 a.m. Saturday in Champaign, Ill.

Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi credited not only Brown but an Illini offensive line that is playing at a “really high level.” With their big success on the ground, Rossi has seen it set up play-action passing.

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But while Minnesota will have veteran quarterback Tanner Morgan, Illinois appears to be without top QB Tommy DeVito, who aggravated an ankle injury against the Hawkeyes and did not return. Artur Sitkowski stepped in.

Bielemna did not sound hopeful Monday that DeVito or other injured players, including No. 1 receiver Isaiah Williams, would be back for Homecoming against the Gophers. The betting line moved from Minnesota being a 3.5-point favorite before the comment to Minnesota at minus-6.5 by Tuesday.

The Gophers starting defense gave up its first touchdown of the season in the first quarter in the loss to Purdue, and missed tackles were mostly responsible.

Rossi said poor run fits can be the real culprit for subsequent missed open-field tackles, which he pointed out can be the hardest task on a football field. “When you add one of the best players in the country, who is able to make people miss in a phone booth, it makes (run fits and tackling) even more important,” he said.

Gophers safety Tyler Nubin said facing Brown is an opportunity they relish. “That is a great challenge and something that we’ve been waiting on and something that we are up for definitely,” Nubin said. “It’s going to be fun. That is always fun when you can play against elite players.”

Like the start of the game, Minnesota didn’t play well at the end against the Boilermakers. Trailing 13-10, Rossi blitzed nickel back Michael Dixon, and running back Devin Mockobee found an opening. Multiple Gophers missed tackles or tried to force a fumble on a 68-yard run that set up a short TD run.

“That’s not us,” Rossi said. “That is not what we believe in. We can’t have that. We talk all the time: There is a fine line between elite defense and bad defense. That was certainly on the bad side.”

Brown also can make defenders look bad; he has eight carries over 20 yards this season.

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“He’s got crazy balance,” Nubin said. “It’s really hard to knock him off balance. He’s really good in open field, making guys miss. One, two guys miss and then you can see his speed. He’s got breakaway speed. He’s really a complete back.”

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