CHAMPAIGN, Illinois — Minnesota controlled its own destiny in the Big Ten coming into Saturday's game at Illinois, and with just under 7 minutes to play had a lead and the ball.
But self-inflicted errors cost the Gophers, the biggest of them a fumble by the Gophers' best offensive weapon.
Illinois linebacker T.J. Neal stripped the ball out of running back David Cobb's hands and cornerback V'Angelo Bentley returned 12 yards for a touchdown to give the Illini a 28-24 lead they made hold up.
After putting up 21 third-quarter points to go up 24-21, the Gophers (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) thought they were about to repeat last weekend's comeback win over Purdue.
"To be honest, I thought we had it in the bag," linebacker Damien Wilson said. "The way the defense came out the second half playing, I just knew we were going to get stop after stop. We had the game in the bag."
Minnesota drops to a tie with Nebraska in the Big Ten West and missed out on a chance to start 4-0 in conference play for the first time since 1967.
And the rest of the season is daunting. After a home matchup against Iowa next week, Minnesota then will face Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin to close out the year.
"Those kids are hurt in there, but it's our jobs as coaches to get them to bounce back" Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "We have a huge game against Iowa at home..."
Across the stadium, Illini coach Tim Beckman enjoyed the end of a three-game losing streak for his team (4-4, 1-3). The Gatorade-soaked coach made the most of a celebration that started on the field and spilled into the Illinois locker room.
"It was electric. That's what it's supposed to be. That's what locker rooms are supposed to be like," said Beckman, who has lived all season with rumors about his job security.
Bentley scooped up the ball on the decisive fumble and carried it into the end zone with 6:33 to play.
"I pretty much knew right away — it pretty much bounced right to me," Bentley said.
Cobb blamed himself for the fumble and the loss.
"I let the team down, I'll be honest about it," he said.
Much of the credit for Illinois' win belonged to the defense.
The Illini came into the game giving up 484.6 yards and 35.9 points a game. And they were 13th in the 14-team conference in turnovers created with seven.
Cobb finished with 118 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries. But Illinois held him in check for almost three quarters, with 34 yards on his first 16 carries.
"Everybody's going to try to stop David Cobb. I mean, he's one of the best running backs in the nation. So we've got to be able to complete those passes," said receiver Isaac Fruechte, who caught three balls for 105 yards and one touchdown. But he dropped one deep pass that might have led to another.
Controlling Cobb and creating the game-changing fumble gave a defense that hadn't had much to get excited about this season a reason to feel good.
"It's like Christmas, when you open up a present and they see it, their eyes get big," defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. "It's like that whenever you get a win. They're excited and when they're excited, I'm excited.
Illinois led 14-0 in the first quarter, scoring on two of its first three drives, with most of the yardage and one of the scores coming from quarterback Reilly O'Toole.
The senior backup started for Wes Lunt, who is out with a broken leg, and finished 14-21 for 188 yards and a touchdown. He added another 59 yards on 17 carries and a rushing touchdown.
O'Toole threw for the first touchdown, hitting tight end Jon Davis from 3 yards with 9:31 left in the first quarter. Just under 7 minutes later, O'Toole ran the ball in from 9 yards.
Between quarterback Mitch Leidner and Cobb, the Gophers came to life in the third quarter. They put up 21 points on a 52-yard Leidner strike to Isaac Fruechte and a pair of rushing touchdowns by Cobb, from 1 and 13 yards.
Those 21 points gave Minnesota its first and only lead, 24-21.