CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The Gophers' season was extended by a game Saturday. Too bad they can't play that bowl game here.
Minnesota won for the fourth consecutive time in Memorial Stadium, this time relying on an improving-by-the-minute defense. Minnesota became eligible for a bowl game by keeping Illinois out of the end zone and capturing a 17-3 victory over the last-place Illini.
The Gophers improved to 6-4 on the season, 2-4 in the Big Ten, and handed coach Jerry Kill his first career Big Ten road victory by bottling up an Illinois offense all day. The Gophers stonewalled two straight Illini runs from the 1-yard line on their first drive, and never allowed 2-8 Illinois to get anywhere near the end zone again. The Illini never even reached the red zone again until only 5 seconds remained in the game.
With two games remaining -- a trip to Nebraska next week and the home finale against Michigan State -- the Gophers appear headed to the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston, or the Heart of Dallas Bowl in the Cotton Bowl Stadium.
Minnesota quarter Philip Nelson had his worst day of four career starts, completing only nine of his 15 passes for 78 yards. But with a stout defense and an effective running game, they didn't need him. Sophomore tailback Donnell Kirkwood picked up 152 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries, his third 100-yard game of the season.
Kirkwood's longest run was a 38-yard burst along the left sideline in the second quarter. But his most important run, late in the third quarter, was far shorter. As the center point of the Gophers' three-back "diamond" rushing formation, Kirkwood took a handoff and followed fullback Mike Henry through a small hole in the Illinois line, easily stepping three yards into the end zone.
That turned out to be the game's decisive touchdown,. The Illini crossed midfield only once in the second half, getting to Minnesota's 36 in the fourth quarter before turning the ball over on downs. And given the ball with 3:30 to play, Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase fumbled the snap on a third-and-inches play at the Illini 30. Safety Derrick Wells recovered, and three plays later, Kirkwood put the game away with a 12-yard romp through the middle of the defense.
It was the first time the Gophers have kept an opponent out of the end zone since a 17-6 victory over Purdue in 2008, and the fewest points allowed by Minnesota in a Big Ten game since a 45-0 shutout against Illinois in 2004.