The Gophers had a hard time learning what Jerry Kill was teaching this season. But they aced the final.
Minnesota held an opponent to single digits for the first time in three years, got a near-record rushing performance from its learning-more-every-day quarterback, and headed into an important offseason with a warm, fuzzy feeling for the second consecutive season. The Gophers dominated Illinois 27-7 behind MarQueis Gray's 167 rushing yards and three touchdowns, and helped Kill avoid his first 10-loss season in a decade.
"They've kind of figured it out the last four weeks," Kill said after finishing his first season at Minnesota with a 3-9 record, and 2-6 in the Big Ten. "Unfortunately, I wasn't a good enough coach to get them to figure it out when I first got here, or we'd be farther along."
Instead, they are basically at the exact spot they were last November, with the same record, the same salvage-a-smile finish, even the same conference victims, Iowa and Illinois. But this year feels quite a bit different, too. Last year's uncertainty over a coaching vacancy has been supplanted by a confidence that Kill has helped the Gophers take the first step toward respectability.
"They're going to be pretty good," said senior linebacker Gary Tinsley, who punctuated his four seasons in Minnesota with one of the Gophers' five sacks. "They have a lot of young guys who are ready to step up and play."
Certainly more than the skidding but bowl-eligible Illini (6-6, 2-6), or so it seemed. Illinois didn't play like it was trying to get embattled coach Ron Zook fired, it played like it wanted him arrested.
The Illini didn't record so much as a first down on their first six possessions, and had 18 total yards (only 199 fewer than the Gophers) by halftime. Their longest play from scrimmage traveled 14 yards, they didn't cross midfield until they trailed by 27 points, and their overworked punter practically handled the ball more than any of his teammates.
"That first half was as good as we've played since I've been here," Kill said of the Gophers, who had not held a team below 10 points since a 17-6 victory over Indiana in 2008. "That's what I'm used to, so I'm excited. A physical, hard-nosed football team that can run the ball and play defense."
They got big contributions from such departing seniors as Tinsley and Kim Royston, whose 13th and final tackle of the game (and 209th of his Gophers career) was the only sack he's ever had. "I'm extremely happy for my last play to be a sack instead of a broken leg," said Royston, who missed the 2010 season while his shattered leg healed.
And they also got "a beastly game," as Tinsley described it, from defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, one of the young guys Kill hopes will become a cornerstone to a better defense. The sophomore had two sacks and knocked the football out of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase's hands, a fumble that set up the Gophers' first score.
Most of all, the Gophers witnessed a graduation ceremony of sorts for Gray, whose final year of eligibility next fall figures to bear only modest resemblance to the learning curve that was his junior year. Gray made smart decisions, avoided mistakes and tore apart an Illinois defense that ranked second in the Big Ten in stopping the run.
"He could be an awfully good player" next year, Kill said after Gray missed by 4 yards breaking his own single-game school record for rushing yards by a quarterback. "I'm certainly pleased with his progress."
With Illinois' defensive ends sitting outside to keep him from turning the corner, Gray ran to his right, then cut inside and broke a tackle for a 16-yard touchdown in the second quarter, giving the Gophers a 7-0 lead. On their next possession, Gray drove the Gophers to the 8, then faked a run before floating a touchdown pass to tight end John Rabe, giving the Gophers their first double-digit lead of the season.
"It felt pretty good to just relax, move the ball as we wanted, do whatever we wanted to," said Gray, who had never enjoyed such a cushion. And he added to it in the third quarter, looking to his right for a receiver, then turning and finding the field wide open to his left. He scrambled 14 yards for another touchdown, and the Gophers could start to celebrate their encouraging finish.
The celebration won't last. Weightlifting starts Monday, and there's plenty of work planned before 2012.
"We still have a lot of learning to do," Kill said. "We still make too many mistakes."
Fewer all the time, though.