2:00 PM ET, October 23, 2004
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Minnesota most likely won't be boarding a plane bound for Pasadena in two months, but the Gophers still have plenty to play for.
Marion Barber III ran for two touchdowns and threw for another, helping Minnesota rebound from consecutive devastating defeats with a season-salvaging 45-0 homecoming victory over Illinois on Saturday.
"Our goal all year was to get to the Rose Bowl," said quarterback Bryan Cupito. "Now, I don't think that's possible anymore. Who knows? We lost two in a row -- can't do anything about that. We've just got to win the rest and get to the best bowl game we can."
Barber gained 138 yards on 11 carries for the Gophers (6-2, 3-2), the nation's third-leading rushing team whose Big Ten title hopes were crushed by losses at Michigan (27-24) and Michigan State (51-17).
"You talk about getting off the floor," said Minnesota coach Glen Mason, who admitted he was taken aback by his team's drastic turnaround.
The Illini (2-6, 0-5) were held to 72 yards rushing and dropped their 13th straight Big Ten game.
"You've just got to keep your head up," said redshirt freshman Brad Bower, who started at quarterback. "This is when real character comes out and you see how hard you're going to fight."
Cupito completed 10 of 21 passes for 247 yards and one touchdown for the Gophers, who finish with Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa. They're now bowl eligible, but they currently trail four teams in the conference race and will have a tough time reaching any New Year's Day game -- let alone the Rose Bowl.
"We can still get somewhere else that's good," said linebacker Kyle McKenzie, one of the standouts on a defense that posted the school's first shutout in a Big Ten game since a 12-0 win over Indiana on Oct. 20, 1990. "We kind of forgot how good we could be. We needed that win to see how good we really are."
McKenzie had 12 tackles, 2½ sacks and a forced fumble. Three of Terrence Campbell's seven tackles were for a loss.
"The defense got back on track," said Minnesota's Laurence Maroney, who ran 15 times for 72 yards and a touchdown. "They got their mind right and they played hard."
Jon Beutjer, a senior who has started 20 games over the last three seasons, was benched after he threw three interceptions in the second half against Michigan last week. Coach Ron Turner kept his decision a secret until kickoff.
"It doesn't matter who the quarterback is," Turner said. "We've got to execute better and block better than we did today."
Minnesota was missing two injured starters -- cornerback Trumaine Banks and strong safety Justin Fraley -- after allowing 636 yards last week, but Illinois couldn't capitalize.
Bower showed some mobility, rushing for 39 yards, and he went 14-for-20 for 131 yards. Chris Pazan came in for the last two series of the second half, though, and his second pass attempt was costly.
With the Gophers leading 10-0, Jamal Harris -- who replaced Banks -- intercepted Pazan's throw at the Minnesota 44. Cupito threw a 45-yard pass to Jakari Wallace on third down, and Barber darted to the corner of the end zone for an 8-yard score with 58 seconds left before the half to make it 17-0.
"I just threw a bad ball," Pazan said.
Steve Weatherford's 46.5-yard average on eight punts was one bright spot -- but it's surely a bad sign when the team's most impressive performer was the punter.
"It's time to play for pride," said Turner, whose job could be in jeopardy. "That's what I just told the team -- it's no different than in life. If we go in the tank and don't go down fighting, we're going to get trampled."
The Illini went scoreless for the first time since a 27-0 loss at Penn State on Oct. 31, 1998. The 51 points the Gophers gave up last week were an aberration, in Turner's eyes.
"They had their hangover game last week," he said. "They're too good a football team to do that two weeks in a row."
Jakari Wallace caught four passes for 91 yards, and Paris Hamilton had an 82-yard TD reception on the final play of the third quarter for the Gophers.
Barber hogged most of the highlights. He scored early in the second quarter, bouncing off a tackler near the line of scrimmage and scooting to the outside for a 44-yard run.
Midway through the third, Barber ran right, stepped back and threw to a wide-open Ernie Wheelwright for a 21-yard score to put Minnesota up 24-0.
"I told Coop to watch out," Barber joked, prompting laughter -- a sound the Gophers have longed for since the beginning of the month.