CHAMPAIGN, ILL. - Too bad there's no handing-out-roses or tossing-oranges tradition around the Meineke Car Care Bowl, or some way to invoke the hallowed history of the Heart of Dallas Bowl. If there was, the Gophers definitely would have been juggling car parts or wearing cowboy hats Saturday, because there was no missing the excitement in their voices after their 17-3 victory over Illinois.
"It's unbelievable," freshman quarterback Philip Nelson said. "We've been talking about this all year long."
No, it's not going to be Pasadena. But the Gophers are going to a bowl game, and for a team that for the past couple of years has sometimes performed as all-around dreadfully as -- well, as the Illini did Saturday, for instance -- the destination isn't the point. It's the milestone that matters.
"It shows that we're getting better," said tailback Donnell Kirkwood, whose 152 yards and two touchdowns provided all the offense the Gophers needed. Minnesota's sixth victory -- as many as they have recorded in the past two seasons combined -- is proof of his point. So was the way Kirkwood and his teammates dismantled the Illini, keeping them out of the end zone, making a handful of big offensive plays when necessary, and avoiding the critical errors that have dogged them during the Big Ten season.
"We played old-fashioned football," said Gophers coach Jerry Kill, and their reward is one that also seems out of the distant past, too: an invitation to a bowl game, their first since 2009. The Gophers won't know for two more weeks where their holiday destination will be, but Houston (for the Meineke) and Dallas, which own the sixth and seventh pick of Big Ten qualifiers, appear likeliest.
The Gophers might actually prefer playing it in Illinois' Memorial Stadium, where Minnesota has now won four consecutive visits.
This one doubled as Kill's first Big Ten road victory, after six consecutive losses, and the tone for it was set by a goal-line stand on Illinois' very first possession. The Illini marched 89 yards and had two shots at the end zone from the 1, but the Gophers stuffed tailback Donovonn Young on the first try and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase on the second.
"We've got to come off the football and bloody some mouths and get us a yard when we need a yard," grumbled Tim Beckman, who has lost seven consecutive games in his first season at Illinois. "This is college football -- come off the football and get the yard."
Instead, Illinois kicked the field goal -- and never really threatened again.
"Our guys up front, they played with tremendous low pad level and our linebackers came over the top. The safeties got in the right gaps," Kill said. "We won the war up front."
"That was huge," said defensive end D.L. Wilhite, who moved into a tie for the Big Ten sacks lead (with 7 1/2) by taking down Scheelhaase to force a second-quarter punt. "They could have easily won themselves some momentum if they had been able to punch it in."
With no such momentum, Illinois' next nine possessions resulted in six punts, two lost fumbles and a turnover on downs. Forget the end zone -- the Illini, who became the first Gophers opponent to fail to score a touchdown since Purdue in a 17-6 Minnesota victory in 2008, didn't even reach the red zone again until five seconds remained in the game.
Meanwhile, the Gophers figured out early on that their passing game wasn't going to be much help. But Kill and his staff had an answer.
"Their secondary did some unique things that made it difficult to throw. At halftime, we discussed what we needed to do because they were bringing it from everywhere," Kill said. "We said, 'We're going to run the power and outside zone, try to protect Philip as much as we can, and get the ball to the back."
Kirkwood, who now has three 100-yard games this season, and Rodrick Williams, who rolled up 55 yards in 10 carries, took it from there. 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 3 yards into the end zone.
"Big Mike Henry, that's my big fullback. It worked. Power football, it worked," said Kirkwood, who later put the game away with a 12-yard touchdown run with 1:34 to play. "The [offensive] lineman were preaching with Coach [Matt] Limegrover: 'We want power, we want power.' And he trusted them."