With a 17-3 win over the Illinois Fighting Illini, the Minnesota Golden Gophers are bowl eligible. Saturday's win in Champaign improved the Gophers' record to 6-4 overall and 2-4 in the Big Ten while Illinois dropped to 2-8 and 0-6 in conference play.
Here are five things we learned from Saturday's low-scoring contest.1. The Gophers are going bowling.For the first time since 2009, Minnesota is bowl eligible. After the Gophers began the season a perfect 4-0 in non-conference play, a six-win season and a berth in a bowl game seemed inevitable. But things changed when Minnesota got into the Big Ten schedule. The Gophers lost their first three conference games before beating Purdue two weeks ago. After a loss to Michigan last weekend, though, Minnesota fell to 5-4 overall and needed a win in its final three games to become bowl eligible.The Gophers got that elusive sixth win Saturday, beating Illinois in a low-scoring affair. In head coach Jerry Kill's first year at the helm last year, Minnesota finished 3-9 for the second straight year. Now in his second year, Kill has already doubled his team's win total from a year ago. While Minnesota won't likely play in one of the top-tier bowls, any bowl game is a sign of progress for the Gophers. Minnesota's last appearance in a bowl game was the Insight Bowl in 2009, when the Tim Brewster-led Gophers lost 14-13 to Iowa State. Kill's Gophers now have two more games at Nebraska and at home against Michigan State to try to improve their bowl positioning.2. Minnesota's defense was key to Saturday's win.Illinois entered Saturday's matchup with the worst overall offense in the Big Ten. The Illini averaged just 126.0 rushing yards and 175.0 passing yards per game. Illinois finished Saturday with fewer rushing yards and exactly as many passing yards as it had averaged this season, thanks largely to a stout effort by Minnesota's defense.Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was 15-for-23 for 175 yards. Meanwhile, Illinois gained 101 rushing yards as a team, led by a team-high 42 yards on 10 carries from Donovonn Young and another 24 yards from Scheelhaase. With Illinois threatening to tie the game late in the fourth quarter, Minnesota's defense turned up the pressure on Illinois quarterback Nate Scheelhaase, forcing him to throw incompletions on third and fourth down. That gave the Gophers the ball back with just over five minutes remaining. Illinois had one last chance to tie with less than three minutes remaining, but the Gophers forced another Scheelhaase fumble as the Illinois quarterback stretched the ball to try and get a first down. Safety Derrick Wells recovered, and Minnesota scored a touchdown shortly thereafter to secure its sixth win of the year.3. Donnell Kirkwood carried the offense on his back Saturday.Kirkwood, the Gophers' redshirt sophomore running back, has had an up and down season as Minnesota's top back. He had a pair of 100-yard games but also had games in which he gained 58 yards, 33 yards and eight yards. On Saturday, Kirkwood had his third 100-yard game of the season his second in the last three games and he found the end zone twice as Minnesota gained 231 rushing yards as a team. Kirkwood put an exclamation mark on the game with a 12-yard touchdown with 1:34 remaining in the game. The run put Kirkwood at a career-high 152 yards on 28 carries. Kirkwood also had a career-long run of 38 yards, surpassing his previous high of 30 yards. Minnesota's passing game was ineffective just 78 yards but the Gophers didn't need to do much through the air as Kirkwood grinded it out on the ground.4. The Gophers still miss A.J. Barker's deep-threat capability.Barker did not play Saturday as he missed his second straight game with an ankle injury. Barker has been the Gophers' top wide receiver all season and was the only player with a catch of more than 40 yards this season.Additionally, Barker had more catches (30) than the next two receivers combined (27). His seven touchdowns are easily the most on the Gophers. Tight end John Rabe is second with four. Wide receiver Derrick Engel, who is second on the team in receiving yards with 215, was also out Saturday with an injury.So without Barker and Engel on the field against Illinois, Minnesota's passing attack was virtually non-existent. Isaac Fruechte, who is second in receptions behind Barker, had a team-high three catches for 40 yards on Saturday. Senior Brandon Green was the only other Gopher with more than one reception as he had two catches for 19 yards but had a crucial drop in the fourth quarter. Freshman quarterback Philip Nelson, making his fourth career start, had his lowest totals of the year as he was 9-for-15 for just 78 yards.5. Minnesota's dominance in Champaign continues and Kill gets his first Big Ten road win in the process.For whatever reason, the Gophers have had plenty of success at Memorial Stadium in recent years. Minnesota entered Saturday's game having won three straight games in Champaign, including a 38-34 win against the Illini in 2010. The last time the Gophers lost on the road to Illinois was back in 2001, a 25-14 Fighting Illini victory.The trend continued Saturday, as Minnesota scored 17 unanswered points following Illinois' field goal. With the win, Kill now has his first Big Ten road victory. The Gophers were 0-4 on the road in conference play last year and lost at Iowa and Wisconsin this year. Kill's only road win prior to Saturday came in the first game of this season at UNLV. Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.