CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Jerry Kill had never won a Big Ten road game before, and he was intent upon changing that Saturday. So he displayed a what-the-heck willingness to take a few risks, particularly on fourth down, in order to secure it.
Even after his offense had failed, for the third time in two weeks, to reach the end zone after having a first-and-goal situation inside the Illinois 5-yard line, Kill showed no hesitation about trusting his short-yardage offense in the second half. With the score tied 3-3 and facing fourth-and-inches from the Illini 16, Kill called for a quarterback sneak, when a chip-shot field goal would have given the Gophers the lead.
"You feel like, you're on the road, [it's] 6 inches -- if you can't make that, you probably don't deserve to win," Kill said. Philip Nelson plunged into the line, fullback Mike Henry shoved him from behind, and the Gophers' drive kept going. Donnell Kirkwood scored from 3 yards out three plays later.
In the fourth quarter, the situation was reversed. Illinois was on the Gophers 35, trailing 10-3 with just over five minutes to play and facing fourth-and-4. Again, Kill gambled, sending safety Derrick Wells and linebacker Aaron Hill on a blitz and leaving the rest of his secondary to play one-on-one coverage.
"You can sit back and try to keep the ball in front of you and tackle it, or you can go get it, get pressure on it," Kill said. "I've been with these [coaches] on our offensive and defensive staff for a long time. I think we all understand when you're on the road, let's go make something happen."
Once more, they did. Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was rushed into passing the ball, and his throw to receiver Darius Millines about 10 yards downfield was knocked away by cornerback Troy Stoudermire, handing the ball to the Gophers.
"Huge play. Troy basically was on an island there," linebacker Mike Rallis said. "But he was put in a position to make a play there, and he made it."
Next center up
Backup center Zach Mottla was carried off the field on a cart during the fourth quarter, and Kill said the injury appears serious.
"Just going out there, he's in a lot of pain," the coach said. "He's a tough, tough kid -- he got up and walked [to the cart]. He'd have found a way to play."
Kill said he didn't know the specifics, other than it's a leg injury.
Mottla was the second Gophers center to be hurt Saturday. Starter Jon Christenson suffered a high ankle sprain on his left foot during the first half and didn't return. When Mottla was injured, guard Zac Epping moved to center, with Joe Bjorklund moving into Epping's spot.
"Thank God we snapped Zac Epping early in the year and played him in the first game," said Kill, who added he had never before used three centers in one game. "We're going to have to train somebody" for next week.
D.L. Wilhite moved into a tie for the Big Ten lead in sacks with Nebraska's Eric Martin at 7.5, and he had a little help from the Illini in doing it. As he lined up for a third-and-3 in the second quarter, the senior defensive end heard the tailback and right guard straightening out their assignments.
"The running back asked who he was supposed to block, and the tackle told him me," Wilhite said with a grin. "So I knew a cut block was coming. I knew all I had to do was beat the running back and it would be easy to get to the quarterback."
• Saturday 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.
• The game was played in a 20-miles-per-hour wind, which caused several kickoffs to sail far out of the end zone, and helped Gophers punter Christian Eldred average 43.3 yards on six punts. It's also why Kill chose not to try a field goal or punt on fourth-and-five from the Illini 32 in the fourth quarter. A pass from Nelson to Brandon Green fell incomplete.