CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — On a windy Illinois afternoon that made passing an adventure, Minnesota knew it would need to run the ball if it wanted to pocket a win.
But the Golden Gophers figured they might have to run a little farther than they did to beat the Illinois.
A pair of early Illinois turnovers and a short punt gave Minnesota the ball at the Illinois 49-, 20- and 9-yard lines, and the Gophers turned each into a touchdown on the way to a 40-17 win.
Rodney Smith did the bulk of the damage, rushing for 100 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Shannon Brooks added 59 yards and a score on a dozen carries.
Smith's first touchdown was a 20-yard burst up the middle with 2:16 left in the first quarter, giving Minnesota (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) the lead for good at 14-7. It followed a fumbled punt by Illinois' Darius Mosely, recovered by Antione Winfield Jr. at the 20.
"We love to see that because we're pretty good in the red zone," said Brooks, who added that those turnovers built momentum for Minnesota and robbed Illinois of energy. "Yeah, definitely. That's a stab, a stab in the back. That hurts."
The turnovers, Illinois coach Lovie Smith said, swung the game hard and early for Minnesota.
"It's hard to win the football game when you start like that," Smith said. "Those turnovers put us in a hole."
Jeff George Jr., Illinois' (2-6, 1-4) third-string quarterback and the son of Illini legend and longtime NFL quarterback Jeff George, started his second straight game and went 16-34 for 156 yards and a touchdown.
Illinois starter Wes Lunt suited up but sat out his third straight game with a back injury. Second-string quarterback Chayce Crouch, who injured a shoulder in a win over Rutgers two weeks ago, is out for the season after having surgery Monday, Smith confirmed.
Illinois receiver Malik Turner left the field on a stretcher in the first half after a hit by Minnesota safety Duke McGhee. Turner was taken to a local hospital but was back in the locker room before the end of the game, Smith said, though further information about his injury was not available.
"It was terrifying. It was emotional, especially with a kid like that who works so hard, to see a tragic injury like that," Smith said.
McGhee was flagged for targeting and ejected from the game.
Minnesota: The Gophers get what in the end turned into a blowout win, a little payback for a loss at Illinois two years ago and guarantee themselves bowl eligibility. But they struggled for three quarters to put away a limited Illini team. While some players acknowledged celebrating a bit, Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys downplayed the significance of being bowl eligible. He said his team still hopes to find a way to the Big Ten title game. And he said he never worried that Illinois was hanging around longer than he'd like.
"I never really felt uncomfortable as long as we had a lead," Claeys said.
Illinois: Even if Lunt had played there's no guarantee Illinois would be better off with him than George. Turner has been Illinois' only real receiving threat this season. Illinois needs its defense, which Smith has called the strength of the team, to create the kind of turnovers that gave the Gophers short fields Saturday.
INTO THE WIND
Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner and his receivers struggled with the wind. The senior was 10-19 for 112 yards, and the 20 mph gusts didn't help, Claeys said.
"It was big. It hurt the passes toward the sidelines," the coach said,
Claeys said after the game that hits like the one that led to McGhee's ejection are difficult to avoid.
"When those guys are going down that low, it's hard," he said. "I hate to tell them to go down to the legs all the time. We've got to stay below the shoulders."
Likely no one was happier to be spending Saturday in Champaign than Minnesota linebackers coach Mike Sherels. He tweeted Friday, his 32nd birthday, that "this one is special because I almost didn't make it." Sherels spent much of August being treated for what has only been described as a serious digestive problem that required multiple surgeries. He rejoined the team in early October.
Minnesota: Minnesota has a good shot at win No. 7 next Saturday when it faces Purdue at home.
Illinois: The Illini get a second straight home game, hosting a Michigan State team that's down but still considerably stronger that Illinois.
Follow David Mercer on Twitter: @davidmercerAP
Associated Press college football coverage: http://collegefootball.ap.org/