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Running Game and Defense Lead Minnesota Gophers to Victory over Illinois

Before looking ahead to Nebraska and the Gopher's eventual bowl destination, let's look back at the big win over Illinois that got them bowl eligible.

Brace Hemmelgarn-US PRESSWIRE

So in all the excitement about getting bowl eligible, we still haven't reviewed the game that got them there. Especially with a probable beating coming in Lincoln this weekend, why not reflect on some positives while we have some? Exactly.

Not the most, um, "viewer friendly" football game unless you enjoy punting, very little passing, and a steady dose of Donnell Kirkwood. OK that last part actually was very enjoyable to watch. Donnell Kirkwood is becoming a legit Big Ten running back, capable of carrying the load, and boy did he Saturday setting a career high 153 yards on 28 carries, which included his second and third TD runs of the season. Perhaps most impressive is he only had one run that resulted in negative yardage, and it was just a loss of one yard. Kirkwood is becoming the feature back this offense has lacked since the Mason Era, and needs just 181 yards to go over 1000 for the season, which would make him the first Gopher to do that since Amir Pinnix ran for 1272 in 13 games back in 2006. He's not the biggest, not the fastest, not the flashiest, but the guy is just productive. He always seems to hit the gap- and the right one- at full speed and has that ability to make a guy or two miss and get that extra yard. I'll admit I was wrong about him to start the year, as I expected next to nothing out of him, but I've been very happy every week to see him prove me wrong.

The line did a great job of opening holes and Kirkwood was running through them with authority. Not only that, but Roderick Williams contributed with 55 yards on 10 carries (even my math tells me that's an impressive 5.5 avg) and if you take out the two sacks QB Philip Nelson took, he had 10 carries for 42 yards. Considering how much the passing game struggled, it was very encouraging to see the offense line up and run the ball consistently all game long, even when Illinois knew it was coming. Pretty impressive job by the line despite the absurdity of the number of injuries they've sustained, and it got even worse as they lost backup C Zach Mottla for the year with a broken leg. With the Jon Christenson's status for Saturday still up in the air due to- you guessed it-injury, the Gophers are down to just one available player, Zac Epping, with experience playing center. Per Nate Sandell of 1500 ESPN:

Outside of Epping, the only two players that have taken practice snaps at C are either sitting out the year because of transfer regulations or being redshirted -- sophomore Brian Bobek and freshman Isaac Hayes. Kill insisted he would not burn a redshirt at this point in the season. This means someone on the line will have to rapidly learn a new position this week. "We're going to have to teach somebody," Kill said. "That's a shame, but that's what we're going to have to do."

I know what some of you cynical smart asses are saying: he'll take the redshirt off Isaac Hayes because we've heard him say before that he wouldn't remove redshirts and yet he burned them on Nelson and TE Logan Plsek and others. True, but I really do take him at his word here, and that they're trying to avoid putting Hayes in at all costs. God forbid, but if Epping went down too they may not have a choice, otherwise, cross your fingers and toes and pray to the god of skinny punks that Epping stays healthy and we don't have to see a fourth string center who's never played the position, or Hayes.

The passing game? The passing game was...not good. To say the least, yet I'm not that worried about it. Do I think they're going to light up Nebraska this week or Sparty next? Nope, but they're bowl eligible, and they'll have 15 more practices after that and hopefully close to a month to get their receivers back healthy and ready. Clearly AJ Barker is one of the most important offensive players the team has, as without him Nelson has failed to find anyone else who can consistently get open. I have not heard an update on his status for Lincoln, but wow do they need him to have any hope of moving the ball through the air. Isaac Fruecthe is solid but not spectacular, but is not the go-to receiver Barker is, or at least not yet. MarQueis Gray is really hampered by that ankle injury, as he doesn't display the explosiveness we saw from him as a sophomore at receiver. Great possession guy, good hands, but he didn't play much and wasn't open much either. Brandon Green is finally stepping up and making plays when called upon, so that's been nice to see, and KJ Maye had a few nice first half plays as well before he too went down to injury.

I have no idea what the deal is with Devin Crawford-Tufts, but they need his talent and he's been non-existent. I'm going to chalk this one up to a nagging injury until I hear otherwise, because he proved against Iowa last year he can get open and make plays against a real Big Ten defense, yet we haven't seen it for five weeks now. Not sure about Andre McDonald either as the talent is clearly there but the production thus far is not.

Defensively, Minnesota did exactly what you're supposed to do to a struggling offense, which is shut them down. They held Illinois to just three points and 276 yards of total offense including 101 rushing yards at just 2.9 yards per carry, 175 passing yards, two sacks, two forced AND recovered fumbles, and allowed just 4-14 on third downs. While the game was in doubt until Kirkwood iced it with his second touchdown, you can't blame the defense for the close score as they played a great game, and got a stop every time they needed to. The series of the game might have been the first one, as after Illinois pulled off a flee-flicker for a huge gain to the Gopher 26, and then another for 11 yards inside the red zone, the defense held up allowing just a field goal, and held Illinois without points on their only other trip inside the Red Zone.

The linebackers had maybe their strongest game as Aaron Hill, Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper were the team's top three tacklers, and Rallis added a TFL and forced fumble. Dl Wilhite picked up another sack, giving him 7.5 on the season, which ties him with Nebraska's Eric Martin for the conference lead and his eight tackles for loss are 10th best in the B1G. You read that right. The Gopher defense is currently sixth in the Big Ten in scoring defense and fourth in total defense, and still have the third best pass and pass efficiency defense too.

Whatever happens these last two weeks, the Gophers got the win they needed to get, and did it with a strong running game and defense. That bodes well for 2013 and beyond and who knows, despite the MASH unit they'll be running out there, maybe they can pull off a surprise or too yet.