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Gophers finally get the chance to celebrate

For the first time in 72 days, the Minnesota Golden Gophers entered a locker room with smiles on their faces.

What happened after their 38-34 win against Illinois was to be expected.

"It was definitely insane," Gophers running back DeLeon Eskridge told ESPN.com. "I wish we had cameras in there or something because we just went crazy. It was wild, and we just enjoyed it."

Minnesota had waited a long time to celebrate something after a season filled with disappointment.

The Gophers came to Illinois as losers of nine consecutive games. Their head coach, Tim Brewster, had been fired Oct. 17 after the team dropped its sixth consecutive contest. The team had struggled mightily in all three phases, and most assumed Minnesota would finish 1-11 for the second time in four years.

Motivating Minnesota to play out the string wasn't an easy task, but interim coach Jeff Horton saw no quit in the players.

"The easy thing to do is walk away or believe what everybody's saying, 'You've got no chance,'" Horton said. "That's human nature. And I thought in the second half [against] Ohio State, it got away from us. The turning point was against Michigan State last week at the half, when they scored on the last play. They had all the momentum, but we came back out in the second half, played really well and it carried over into [Saturday]."

Minnesota jumped out to a 17-7 halftime lead, but as has been the case all season, the good times didn't last. Illinois stormed back to claim a 34-24 edge with 8:14 to play, as the Gophers had no answer for running back Mikel Leshoure.

Another defeat seemed certain, but Minnesota got some life when Troy Stoudermire returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards.

"The main thing that was being said was, 'We can still win this, don't give up, it's still a close game, keep going,'" Eskridge said. "We definitely did that."

After Minnesota stopped Illinois with 2:44 left, the Gophers took the ball at their own 20-yard line, trailing 34-31. Horton approached senior quarterback Adam Weber, telling him to enjoy the moment: his last road game in college, trying to run the 2-minute drill to win the game.

Weber also had received some encouragement from Brewster, who sent him a text message Friday that read: "Call me after you beat them." Weber came through, making plays with both his feet and his arm as Minnesota reached the end zone in 10 plays.

"He puts up with so much crap and never complains," Horton said of Weber. "All he does is do the right thing all the time, say the right thing, so it was really rewarding for him."

The emotion in Horton's voice was still there hours after the game, as Minnesota waited to board its flight home.

"Just the circumstances, all the uncertainty, coaches, players, all we've been through," Horton said. "I don't think people realize how hard this is. It's a daily grind to try to keep moving forward. To see it pay off for the kids and the coaches was awesome."