Kirkwood, defense lift bowl-bound Gophers

Like the rest of his Minnesota teammates, running back Donnell Kirkwood surged out of the gate in nonleague play, racking up 361 rush yards and two touchdowns.

Not surprisingly, the Gophers went 4-0.

It has been more of a struggle for Minnesota and Kirkwood during Big Ten play. The Gophers dropped four of their first five league contests, and Kirkwood averaged just 61.2 yards per game (including a 134-yard surge against Purdue) and zero touchdowns. If Minnesota intended to get bowl-eligible, it likely would need a big performance from No. 20 and the offensive line at Illinois.

Kirkwood delivered in a big way in Minnesota's 17-3 win over Illinois, ensuring that the Gophers will go bowling for the first time since the 2009 season. The sophomore racked up 152 rush yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. Boosted by Kirkwood and a stingy defense, Minnesota (6-4, 2-4) had just enough to get past Illinois at Memorial Stadium. Second-year Gophers coach Jerry Kill recorded his first road win as the Gophers won in Champaign for the fourth straight time.

The game was hard to watch at times, particularly in the first half when the teams combined for just six points, one fumble and seven punts. Minnesota held Illinois to 13 first downs and 276 yards, and forced two Nathan Scheelhaase fumbles, including one in the closing minutes as the Illini quarterback tried to stretch the ball for a first down. Kirkwood sealed the win moments later with his second touchdown run, from 12 yards out.

The Gophers' defense once again stepped up, whether it was cornerback Michael Carter knocking down a third-down pass in Minnesota territory or linebacker Mike Rallis forcing Scheelhaase's fumble. Carter has been brilliant in Big Ten play.

Quarterback Philip Nelson had limited numbers (9-for-15 passing, 78 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs), but he made several key plays on third and fourth down, converting two fourth downs to set up the Gophers' first touchdown.

Illinois' defense kept it in the game most of the way, but the Illini have so many problems on offense that it didn't matter. Tim Beckman's crew had just 101 rush yards and couldn't mount a drive of longer than 11 yards in the second or third quarter. The Illini wrap up their home schedule next week against Purdue before finishing at Northwestern.

For Kill and the Gophers, this is one to celebrate. Few envisioned Minnesota would be bowling in Kill's second year. Despite some tough moments in Big Ten play, the Gophers are climbing back toward respectability.