CHAMPAIGN, ILL. - This week at practice, 300-pound defensive end Anthony Jacobs will wear a hat.

Not a brown paper bag to disguise his identity around campus. Not a mask favored by burglars, skiers and Gophers football players during lost seasons.

No, Jacobs will wear a plastic birthday hat that will cling to his head like a satellite dish on an RV.

"We have this rule that after wins, we have a hat day," Jacobs said. "So we're pretty excited about our hat day. It's my birthday on Tuesday, so I'm going to wear a birthday hat."

Until Saturday, Jacobs couldn't count on celebrating any more victories than birthdays this year. Then the Gophers scored two touchdowns in the last eight minutes and upset Illinois 38-34, and celebrated like they hadn't won a Big Ten game in November since 2006.

Which they hadn't.

Players dumped Gatorade on interim coach Jeff Horton. They sang The Rouser in one corner of the fast-emptying staium. They cried. They hugged. After winning a game that improved their record to 2-9, they filled their locker room with shouts.

They reminded us that joy is not always tied to trophies or rankings.

"You forgot what that feels like," quarterback Adam Weber said. "When you have so many losses in a row, it builds up and builds up, and that celebration at the end, in the locker room, was unbelievable.

"That's what you play football for."

Two years ago, the Gophers beat Illinois at Memorial Stadium. Their record was 6-1. Their coach, Tim Brewster, called that victory a "program-changer."

The Gophers won the next week, at Purdue. After that, they went 3-16 in Big Ten games before beating Illinois on Saturday.

None of the Gophers called this one a "program-changer;" they were thrilled to merely change moods.

"You want to remember this for the rest of your life," said cornerback Troy Stoudermire, whose 90-yard kickoff return began the fourth-quarter comeback. "Some of these guys may not have careers after this."

Big Ten football players enjoy plenty of privileges. Scholarships. Status. A TV network dedicated to their games and exploits.

When their team fails, though, they walk around campus with the sports version of a "Kick me" sign on their backs. Everybody knows who they are, and what they have failed to do.

"The hardest thing is trying to separate each week," Weber said. " But you have to. If you go in there thinking, 'We're a 1-9 team,' then you're not going to compete.

"We go into every single week putting the past behind us."

Is that possible? "I'm not going to lie to you. This has been the toughest season I've ever had to go through, mentally and physically," he said, "and always what keeps you coming back, what keeps you coming in on Sunday morning to lift and get ready for next week, is this moment. Today, we did it. It's awesome."

Give Horton credit. He inherited an imploding program from a bad coach and knows he won't be back next year, yet he found the right demeanor, the right words, to lead disheartened players to victory on the road against a team favored by 21 points.

Down 34-24 midway through the fourth period, Stoudermire's kickoff return set up a 4-yard touchdown run by DeLeon Eskridge.

With 2:44 remaining, Minnesota got the ball one last time, on the 20.

On third-and-10, co-offensive coordinator Thomas Hammock called a quarterback draw, and Weber busted it for 29 yards. Four plays later, Weber's screen to Duane Bennett went for 25 yards to the Illini 6.

Three plays after that, Eskridge took a handoff up the middle, got stopped short of the goal line and, in his words, "twisted and turned and pushed" until he nudged the ball over the goal line with 16 seconds remaining. The Minnesota sideline spilled onto the field, and those few Gophers fans in the corner of the stadium bounced on top of bleacher seats.

"It was," Eskridge said, "extreme joy."

Why not? This week, there will be party hats at a Gophers practice in November, and who expected that?

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. •