Minnesota 32, Illinois 23
MINNEAPOLIS - Shannon Brooks went untouched for a 75-yard touchdown run with 1:25 left, and Mitch Leidner ran in the two-point conversion to give Minnesota (5-6, 2-5 Big Ten) a chance to clinch its fourth-straight bowl next week against Wisconsin. Meanwhilem Illinois (5-6, 2-5) lost its fifth in six games and must win against Northwestern to gain bowl eligibility for the second straight year.
Illinois outgained Minnesota 433 to 343 and had possession in Minnesota territory eight times, including six times inside the Minnesota 32-yard line, but scored touchdowns just twice.
Brooks ran for 174 yards on 17 carries, and Leidner (15-for-25 passing for 88 yards) added 64 rushing yards.
Wes Lunt completed 34 of 47 passes for 272 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Malik Turner had career highs in catches (11) and receiving yards (126).
Josh Ferguson ran for 105 yards. Backup Kendrick Foster, who entered the game with 22 career rushing yards, added 56 rushing yards.
Illinois' defense allowed just 34 yards in the second half before Brooks' long run.
What it means
For the second straight season, Illinois enters the final week of the season needing a win over Northwestern to earn bowl eligibility -- and given the lack of bowl-eligible teams, a win likely would clinch a bowl. Illinois beat a beaten-up Wildcats team in Evanston last year. But Northwestern is much-improved this season, so the task seems larger for interim coach Bill Cubit, who didn't help his candidiacy for long-term head coach on Saturday.
What went right
Wes Lunt and the Illinois offense moved the ball effectively, mostly through the air, after a five-week stretch of mostly struggles (outside of the Purdue anomaly). Josh Ferguson was a playmaker and Kendrick Foster provided a huge boost as an in-between-the-tackles runner. Malik Turner had his best game of the season, and the Illini offensive line had its best push against a non-Purdue Big Ten team. Illini kicker Taylor Zalewski is on a really good run. He went 3-for-3 on Saturday and is now 9-for-11 over his last six games, improving his season total to 16-for-23.
What went wrong
The offense had to settle for field goals and left too many points on the field, while Minnesota punched the ball into the end zone. Illinois also turned it over on downs at the Minnesota 35 on its first drive of the fourth quarter. Finishing drives continues to be an issue for Cubit's offense. The Illini special teams really hurt the Illini. Punter Ryan Frain netted just 99 yards on three punts and kickoff coverage gave up a long kickoff return that set up a field goal that gave Illinois an important four-point lead. The Illini defense had a terrible first half, getting run over by Minnesota's zone-read run game, and couldn't get the one last stop it neeeded. The Illini gave up big plays on the ground due to eye violations, missed assignments or overaggressive blitzes. The Illini also struggled to compete against Minnnesota's receivers in man-to-man coverage.
Star of the game
Kendrick Foster, RB: The 5-foot-8 running back had barely been used most of his career because his lack of speed. But the redshirt sophomore has strong legs and continually churns for extra yards and gave Illinois a big boost in the short-yardage running game. Illinois probably should have used him more to finish off drives.
Illinois hosts Northwestern at Soldier Field for a 2:30 p.m. Saturday kickoff in Chicago -- though it's a much shorter drive for the Wildcats -- for a regular-season finale that will determine whether Illinois goes to a bowl game for a second straight season.