Illinois loses seventh straight game
Minnesota fullback Mike Henry holds on to the ball near Illinois defensive back Justin Green Saturday during the first half in Champaign.
CHAMPAIGN — Two plays, two yards and Illinois might have been able to put a pair of stubborn losing streaks to bed Saturday.
But the Illini came up short on both of those third-and-1 plays against Minnesota, losing 17-3 and watching the Gophers secure bowl eligibility and keeping both streaks alive. The Illini (2-8, 0-6 Big Ten) have now lost seven straight in head coach Tim Beckman's frustrating first year and haven't won a conference game in more than a year, dropping 12 straight.
The inability to get a yard on Minnesota (6-4, 2-4), Beckman said, was aggravating.
"We've got to come off the football and bloody some mouths and get us a yard when we need a yard," Beckman said. "I mean, we can't put the ball on the 1-yard-line (and) not get the ball in the end zone."
The first of those plays came early. Illinois drove to the Gopher 1 early in the first quarter but had to settle for a field goal and an early 3-0 lead that somehow felt like it should have been more. The play, the Gophers said, was an early turning point.
"It was huge," defensive end D.L. Wilhite said. "It set the tone for the rest of the game."
The second play, with the Gophers up 10-3 with just under two minutes left in the game, was decisive.
Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, trying to convert another third-and-1 at his own 28, held the ball out ahead of him on a keeper. But the junior quarterback lost the ball, the Gophers recovered and, three plays later, went up 17-3 on Donnell Kirkwood's second touchdown.
"I felt like I let a lot of people down," Scheelhaase said. "I know the coaches and people always say that it doesn't come down to one player, things like that. But for sure, it doesn't feel good about how I let us down there at the end."
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill and the Gophers, meanwhile, had a turnaround to celebrate.
After rebuilding programs earlier in his career at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, Kill has the Gophers bowl eligible for the first time since 2009. Former Southern Illinois quarterback Joel Sambursky, who met with Kill after the victory, agreed with his college coach.
"He said, 'Coach, it reminded me of 2005 -- you can play great defense, run the football, don't make any mistakes in the kicking game and you can win.' And that's what we did today," Kill said.
Kirkwood, a sophomore from Delray Beach, Fla., scored on a 3-yard run in the third quarter to break a 3-3 tie. His 12-yard touchdown run after Scheelhaase's fumble clinched it.
"At the end of the game when they keep feeding me, you know you're doing something right," Kirkwood said.
Minnesota still has games against Nebraska and Michigan State, but the Gophers were already looking forward to bowl season.
"It feels great," Wilhite said. "It's been two long, hard years of struggling. It means a lot for the program moving forward, and it feels good to say, God willing, we'll be going back to a bowl."
Gophers center Zach Mottla was taken from the field on a motorized cart late in the fourth quarter after suffering a leg injury.
"Just going out there, I got a pretty good idea he's in a lot of pain," Kill said.
Scheelhaase threw for 175 yards on 15 of 23 passing, but he lost two fumbles.
The Illini managed just 101 yards rushing. Running back Donovonn Young led Illinois on the ground with 42 yards.
Illinois took a 3-0 lead on the early 20-yard field goal by Nick Immekus.
Besides that early scoring chance, the Illini also had a fumble and six punts in their first eight possessions.
Scheelhaase completed a 49-yard pass to wide receiver Spencer Harris on a flea-flicker on the Illini's first drive, and it looked like Illinois had some early momentum. Illinois couldn't keep it rolling.
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