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Minnesota running back Donnell Kirkwood

Jesse Johnson, Associated Press

GOPHERS AT ILLINOIS

2:30 p.m. today • TV: Big Ten Network (100.3-FM, 1130-AM)

Gophers' best bowl route runs right through Illinois

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER
  • Star Tribune
  • November 10, 2012 - 7:34 AM

The standings say it's a matchup of last-place teams, of Big Ten also-rans with a combined 1-9 conference record this year, with nothing at stake except moving one game closer to the end of two forgettable seasons.

But the Gophers know that's not true. They know there's plenty on the line Saturday when Minnesota visits Illinois in Memorial Stadium.

Specifically: Swag.

"Sometimes [defensive line] coach [Jeff] Phelps tells the young guys, 'This is D.L.'s last year. He's not going to have another chance to go to a bowl game,'" said senior defensive end D.L. Wilhite. "But I tell them, 'Don't do it for me -- do it for the bowl gifts.'"

Oh, and one more thing, Wilhite hastens to add: "And get a little more prestige for the program."

Yes, the prestige attendant in playing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl or the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl should not be discounted, and that's not a punchline. Say what you will about a little-noticed game against whoever finishes a half-dozen spots from the top of the Big 12, held a few days before New Year's, but for the Gophers, it would signify tangible progress after back-to-back 3-9 seasons.

Nobody's scoffing at the Heart of Dallas Bowl either, in other words.

"That's the big goal right now," freshman quarterback Philip Nelson said. "Whatever you've got to do, we all just want to get there very badly."

Especially since the Gophers believe they see great progress despite their 1-4 Big Ten record, despite a 22-point loss to Michigan last week. "It wasn't like the University of Michigan just came in and whipped our tail. I mean, we had opportunities in the game and we didn't take advantage," Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. "We've gotten better. I see progress being made. I thought we took a jump at the end of the year last year, down the last three-game stretch, and I'd like to see us keep moving forward with it."

At 5-4 this season, moving forward would take winning one of their final three games -- and this appears to be best opportunity by far. If they fail to win in Champaign for a fourth straight visit, they would need to collect their sixth win either at Nebraska, where their most recent victory came in 1960, or in the season finale at home against Michigan State, which could be facing a bowl-eligibility imperative of its own that day.

Illinois, then, is the tempting target. Under new coach Tim Beckman -- whom Kill faced when he coached Northern Illinois and Beckman was at fellow Mid-American Conference member Toledo -- the Illini have fallen to the basement of the Big Ten, losing six straight games. They've scored the fewest points and given up the most in the conference, and junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is having the worst season of his career, averaging only 133.6 passing yards per game.

The result: The Gophers are favored in a conference road game for the first time since 2005.

So a bowl game is happening, right? With three games left, the Gophers surely can't miss the postseason, correct?

"I'm not even going to think about it," said Mike Rallis, a senior linebacker. "Not making a bowl is not really an option for me."

Nor for Nelson. "Whenever the sixth [win] comes, it's going to be a great feeling," he said. "We want to send the seniors out with something to remember."

Like those gift bags. Yes, it may sound crass, but to a college student living on little but a football scholarship, playing one more game means more than just a December road trip to a warm locale. The NCAA allows bowl committees to welcome players with gifts of up to $550 each, and the merchandise can resemble a Price Is Right Showcase, with watches, Xbox game systems, iPods, headphones, bowl apparel, rings and even recliners.

"All the stuff you get -- you definitely want to go back to a bowl for the goodies," Wilhite said with a laugh. "I've been to two, and lost twice. I want to win one if, God willing, we get to six."

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