BY PATRICK DONNELLY
MINNEAPOLIS — A promising recovery from a controversial start has sputtered down the stretch for Illinois.
Shannon Brooks rushed for 174 yards and three touchdowns, including a 75-yard romp into the end zone with 1:25 remaining for Minnesota to seal a 32-23 victory over Illinois on Saturday.
The Fighting Illini (5-6, 2-5) won four of their first five games after the abrupt dismissal of head coach Tim Beckman a week before the start of the season. However, they remain one game shy of bowl eligibility with only next week’s game against Northwestern remaining.
The Illini reached the Heart of Dallas Bowl after last year’s 6-6 season. But they haven’t gone to bowl games in consecutive years since they went to five straight from 1988-92. Interim head coach Bill Cubit and his staff are well aware of that fact.
“That’s a long period of time,” Cubit said. “If we can be that second group, despite all the stuff we’ve been through, that would be a heck of an accomplishment.”
They had their chances to clinch a bowl bid on Saturday. Taylor Zalewski’s third field goal of the game brought the Illini within a point with 6:56 remaining, and the Golden Gophers (5-6, 2-5 Big Ten) were forced to punt for a third time in the second half. Illinois took over with a 1-point deficit and less than 5 minutes left at the 16.
After two first downs moved the ball near midfield, an 11-yard sack by Julian Huff set up third-and-21 from the Illini 30. Cubit called a screen pass that got stuffed, and the Illini never threatened again.
“I didn’t know if we were in four-down territory or not,” Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt said. “They were in man and they were bailing deep. . The safety ran back to the middle of the field so I thought we’d be good. I probably should have checked it.”
A punt gave the Gophers the ball back and Brooks, a freshman from Atlanta, took care of the rest. Leidner ran in for the 2-point conversion to put the game out of reach.
Malik Turner caught 11 passes for 126 yards and a touchdown from Lunt for the Illini, who outgained the Gophers 432-343 in total yardage and had the ball for more than two-thirds of the second half.
Josh Ferguson had 105 yards on 20 carries to move onto the top-10 rushing list in Illinois history.
The sky was sunny, but the afternoon air was cold with a kickoff temperature of 22 degrees, the third-lowest in seven seasons for the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium. The record was Nov. 15, 2014, a 15-degree kickoff against Ohio State.
The Gophers have won 11 of the last 15 games in this series, including five of the last seven.
Only seven Big Ten teams have reached the six-win mark yet. Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska each have five victories, leaving officials from the lower-tier bowls sweating out the final few weeks with 80 postseason spots available and only 63 qualifiers when the day began.
The Illini and the Gophers have found themselves in similar situations this season, beyond being near the bottom of the Big Ten West Division. They’ve played challenging schedules and been ravaged by injuries.
Their athletic departments have been in turmoil at worst and in transition at best, and both teams have used interim head coaches this year. The difference is Minnesota has already promoted Tracy Claeys following Jerry Kill’s sudden retirement, and Cubit is still stumping at Illinois to keep the job beyond this season after taking over for Beckman.
A win over instate rival Northwestern on Saturday at Chicago’s Soldier Field would be a help to Cubit’s job application.
“Coach Cubit and the coaching staff have been really positive and they’ve done a good job leading this group,” Lunt said. “I just think a bowl game would help them stay around, and I think that’s really what everyone’s fighting for.”
Cubit said that despite the disappointment in the locker room, his message was positive.
“I told them, ‘You’ve got one more shot. Everything that you’ve put into thing, you’ve faced so much adversity, this is just one more, just another in a long list.’ I think they’ll come out ready to play (Saturday). We’ve just got to fix things.”