The Golden Gophers are finally bowl eligible. Minnesota began the year 4-0 but didn’t nab that sixth win until its 10th game of the season. Win No. 6 came by beating Illinois 17-3 on the road — coach Jerry Kill’s first Big Ten road win. The game was close until a late fourth-quarter touchdown sealed things for the Gophers, who improved to 6-4 on the year. Illinois, meanwhile, dropped to 2-8 overall and 0-6 in the Big Ten. Here are the grades for the Gophers in their sixth win of the season.
Running offense: A
Behind a career day from sophomore Donnell Kirkwood, the Gophers rushed for 231 yards on Saturday against Illinois. That marked the second-highest rushing total this year for Minnesota behind the 240-yard effort against New Hampshire. Kirkwood’s 152 yards came on 28 carries, good for an average of 5.4 yards per carry. He also had the longest rush of his career — 38 yards — and iced the game with a 12-yard rushing touchdown late in the fourth quarter. True freshman Rodrick Williams provided a nice compliment as Kirkwood’s backup, as he gained 55 yards on 10 carries.
Passing offense: D-plus
There wasn’t much of a passing game to speak of Saturday for the Gophers. In his fourth career start, freshman quarterback Philip Nelson had his lowest production since becoming Minnesota’s starter. He completed just nine passes on 15 attempts for 78 yards — all three of which were lows in his four games. The Gophers were missing their top two wide receivers in A.J. Barker and Derrick Engel, who were both out with injuries. Without those two, there was no threat of a deep passing game. Nelson’s longest pass of the day went for just 16 yards. Isaac Fruechte finished with a team-high three catches. Brandon Green added two catches, the only other player with more than one reception.
Running defense: A-minus
Illinois had the worst rushing offense in the Big Ten prior to its game against Minnesota, averaging just 126.0 yards per game on the ground. The Gophers defense held the Fighting Illini to less than that, as Illinois gained just 101 yards rushing. Running back Donovonn Young led the way with 42 yards on 10 carries, while dual-threat quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase added 24 yards on 10 carries. Illinois was unable to break a long run against Minnesota’s defense as its longest run of the game was a 16-yard gain by Young.
Passing defense: B
Last season, Minnesota sacked Scheelhaase five times in a win at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers didn’t get to the Illinois quarterback as much on Saturday, but they still did a good job of pressuring him in key situations. Facing a third and fourth down in the fourth quarter, Minnesota ran back-to-back blitzes to force incompletions. The Gophers sacked Scheelhaase twice, including one by D.L. Wilhite, who now leads the Big Ten with 7.5 sacks.
Special teams: B-plus
Both teams had to deal with a strong wind one direction, which made the kicking game interesting. Gophers punter Christian Eldred had the longest punt of his young Minnesota career — a wind-aided 63-yard punt that resulted in a touchback. Only one of Eldred’s six punts was returned, and it was just a two-yard runback by Illinois. Eldred’s 43.3 yard per punt average was the second-highest in 10 games this season. Kicker Jordan Wettstein connected on his only field goal try of the game, a 20-yarder that tied the game in the second quarter. The Gophers’ return game was nowhere to be seen, however. Minnesota did not have a kick return and returned two punts for a total of four yards.
The Gophers defense certainly did its part against a lackluster Illinois offense, holding the Illini to a first-quarter field goal in a defensive slugfest. While Minnesota’s rushing attack was rolling Saturday, the passing game did little to help out the offense. Regardless, Minnesota got its elusive sixth win of the season, becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2009. The Gophers now have to games remaining, beginning next weekend against Nebraska before hosting Michigan State.