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Minnesota football coach P.J. Fleck’s trademark mantra is “Row the boat,” an expression that refers to his “never give up” philosophy.

Well, Fleck’s boat has sprung a few leaks.

And the boat being guided by Illini coach Lovie Smith is taking on water, too.

So “sink or swim” would be an appropriate storyline when these teams with winless Big Ten Conference records meet Saturday at Minneapolis (2:30 p.m., BTN).

It started so well for Fleck, who is in his first season after guiding Western Michigan to a 13-1 record that ended with a loss to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.

Minnesota (3-3, 0-3) won its three nonconference games by a combined 99-24.

Big Ten losses to Maryland, Purdue and Michigan State have followed and now the Gophers are trying to get untracked while dealing with a number of injuries.

Illinois (2-4, 0-3) beat Ball State and Western Kentucky but has lost four straight since. A quarterback change and a rash of injuries have complicated matters in Smith’s second season and last week, in a 35-24 loss to Rutgers, Illinois was victimized by its own poor tackling and inability to get off the field on third down.

“Defensively, the only bright spot was taking the ball away three times,” Smith said. “But we lost the battle up front.”

Which team plays best on the defensive line could determine Saturday’s winner.

Defense was a strength for the Gophers during nonconference play, limiting three opponents to an average of 59 rushing yards per game. Once the competition stiffened, and injuries thinned the Minnesota roster, that changed.

In three Big Ten games, Minnesota has surrendered an average of 213 rushing yards per game. Michigan State ran for 254 last week.

While that could be an opportunity for the Illini, they’ll be playing their second straight game without leading rusher Mike Epstein. The freshman is out for the rest of the season with a foot injury. And Illinois’ rush offense is last in the Big Ten at 118.3 yards per game.

Each team has made changes at quarterback.

Illinois went with Chayce Crouch the first four games but has since handed the job to Jeff George Jr.

Minnesota has used three quarterbacks. But when Conor Rhoda was ineffective last week against Michigan State, Fleck turned to 6-foot-5 sophomore Demry Croft, who is the likely starter Saturday after throwing three fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Tyler Johnson.

“Demry executed the offense really well,” Fleck said. “He was in a really good rhythm. He knew when to get out of the pocket because he can run. But he went through his progressions. I liked his pocket awareness and his accuracy.”

Illinois is dealing with a number of injuries on defense. Earlier this week, Smith said freshman cornerback Tony Adams from Belleville is out for the season following shoulder surgery. The linebacker group has been dramatically thinned with injuries to Tre Watson, Del’Shawn Phillips and Julian Jones, all of whom have been starters.

Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said he hopes having played Fleck and Western Michigan last season will help in Illinois’ game planning, even though Western Michigan beat the Illini 34-10.

“It gives us a pretty good idea of what their plan of attack might be,” Nickerson said. “We’ll look at last year’s game and the corrections we wanted to make after playing them.”

If there was a bright spot for the Illini last week it was the emergence of freshman wide receiver Ricky Smalling, who had five catches for 111 yards and a touchdown. Look for George to go to Smalling more often, especially since veteran wideout Mike Dudek is nursing an injured knee.


Sports Columnist

Sports columnist for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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