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November 10, 2012CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) -- Minnesota coach Jerry Kill did it again.
After rebuilding programs earlier in his career, Kill has the Gophers bowl eligible for the first time since 2009 after defeating Illinois 17-3 Saturday.
Kill, who overhauled Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois among his first four stops before taking over Minnesota, earned his first Big Ten road win in his second season after running back Donnell Kirkwood rushed for 152 yards and two touchdowns.
"I think we're very similar to the second year at Southern Illinois," Kill said. "We went through, it's almost eerie, the injuries and all the things our guys have overcome."
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.
The Gophers (6-4, 2-4 Big Ten) won for the second time in three games and pushed their winning streak at Memorial Stadium to four games.
Kirkwood, a sophomore from Delray Beach, Fla., scored on a three-yard run in the third quarter to break a 3-3 tie. His 12-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter clinched it.
"At the end of the game when they keep feeding me, you know you're doing something right," Kirkwood said.
The game pitted two sluggish offenses which combined for 585 total yards. Minnesota freshman quarterback Philip Nelson, the Gophers' third starter at the position this season, threw for just 78 yards.
Minnesota still has games against Nebraska and Michigan State, but the Gophers were already looking forward to bowl season.
"It feels great," said Minnesota defensive end D.L. Wilhite. "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.
While Kill's program enjoyed a milestone victory, Illinois continued a slide under first-year coach Tim Beckman.
After losing its final six Big Ten games last season, Illinois (2-8, 0-6) saw its Big Ten losing streak hit 12 games. The Illini have lost seven consecutive games this season.
"Early in that game, we had a couple opportunities to take big strikes, and we over throw a wide-open receiver that's square in the middle of the field," Beckman said. "Just things like that that you have to make if you're going to be successful. Our players aren't making those plays."
When Scheelhaase threw an incomplete pass on a fourth and three from the Minnesota 35-yard line with 5:12 left, the Illini failed on their best scoring chance in the second half.
Scheelhaase threw for 175 yards on 15 of 23 passing, but he lost two fumbles.
"I felt like I let a lot of people down," Scheelhaase said. "For me personally, that's a tough one."
The Illini managed just 101 yards rushing. Running back Donovonn Young led Illinois on the ground with 42 yards.
"We've got to come off the football and bloody some mouths and get us a yard when we need a yard," Beckman said. "We can't put the ball on the 1-yard line for two downs and not get the ball in the end zone. This is college football."
Illinois took a 3-0 lead on a 20-yard field goal by Nick Immekus in the first quarter after a drive stalled at the Minnesota 2.
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.