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Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. Eastern Illinois preview

The Minnesota Golden Gophers begin the 2014 season against the Eastern Illinois Panthers at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers begin the 2014 season against the Eastern Illinois Panthers at TCF Bank Stadium.
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The Minnesota Golden Gophers are preparing for a more difficult test than the normal FCS opponent. The Eastern Illinois Panthers are coming off a 12-2 record and playoff run in 2013.

Series

The Gophers and Panthers are meeting for the first time. Jerry Kill coached teams are 2-1 against Eastern Illinois - all with Southern Illinois. The Panthers are 0-6 lifetime against teams in the Big Ten Conference.

Panthers on Offense

The Panthers were an offensive juggernaut in the FCS last season. They were third in total offense and fifth in scoring. The good news is that they return seven starters. The bad news is that record-setting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and wide receiver Erik Lora are gone.

Garoppolo’s replacement has not been announced. However, the Gophers know both candidates. Andrew Manley (New Mexico State) and Jalen Whitlow (Kentucky) have connections in some way to the Gophers. The Gophers played against Manley during Kill’s first season at Minnesota and the staff recruited Whitlow in high school.

“You got one that throws it a bunch (Manley) and one that can run it and throw it (Whitlow),” Gophers head coach Jerry Kill said in his weekly press conference.

The Panthers have four offensive players on the preseason All-Ohio Valley Conference team, led by running back Shepard Little. Despite leading the team in rushing yards, Little is listed as the backup running back to Taylor Duncan. Kill still had high praise for the running back.

“Little is going to play at the next level,” Kill said. “Tremendous running back. Return guy.”

Panthers on Defense

New head coach Kim Dameron lists three defensive lineman, three linebackers and five defensive backs in their starting lineup. However, Kill doesn’t expect to see the Panthers in that formation for much of the game.

“That’s where the head coach lies and they’re a 4-2-5 defense, but I’m not sure they’re going to be a 4-2-5 defense because of some of the things that you do,” Kill said. “He’s run a lot of “Okie” stuff up front. It’s like preparing for ghosts sometimes, but you don’t know.”

The Panthers have three defensive players listed on the preseason All-Ohio Valley Conference team.

Keys to a Gopher victory

No. 1 - Win in the trenches

A team as run-heavy as the Gophers will always win or lose in the trenches. The Gophers are quite a bit bigger on the offensive line than the Panthers are on the defensive line. They need to take advantage of that and power their way forward. Move the Panthers offensive and defensive lines backwards and it will lead to a Gophers win.

No. 2 - Force Manley to move and Whitlow to stay in the pocket

The Panthers’ two quarterbacks have opposite skill sets and are generally one-dimensional. Manley can throw the ball really well, but doesn’t move very well. He is not going to win the game with his feet. On the other side, Whitlow can run and make defenders miss. However, keeping him in the pocket is going to neutralize his strength. Don’t let Manley or Whitlow use their strengths and the Gophers will have no problem.

Outlook

The Panthers are one of the better FCS teams, but they are still an FCS team. They did lose 62 percent of their offense with the graduation of Garoppolo and 21 percent of their touchdowns with the graduation of Lora.

The Panthers will rely on a pair of quarterbacks that couldn’t hold the starting job on losing FBS teams. Manley started all 12 games for the Aggies in 2012, but transferred to Eastern Illinois following the season. Whitlow started 15 of 24 games for the Wildcats over his two seasons at Kentucky and transferred to Eastern Illinois this summer. Both were or are being replaced by a player in their second year of experience.

The Gophers are a much better team than the one that Manley threw for just under 300 yards against in 2011. The Gophers are much stronger and deeper than they were at that time. They should be able to pull away in the second half and win easily by multiple touchdowns.