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Players of the Game: Strong defense leads Illini to first FBS win

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An impressive defensive effort resulted in five turnovers and a road victory against the Scarlet Knights.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Lovie Smith now has his first FBS win as a college head coach. The orange and blue picked up a conference victory for the first time in 344 days against Rutgers on Saturday, shutting down the Scarlet Knights with a stout defense and a strong running game. Below we break down the three players of the game hockey-style.

Third Star: Darius Mosely

Mosely made a big impact after returning from an injury this week. Though he isn’t an amazing punt returner, he set up the Illinois offense with several returns of over 15 yards and made some nice cuts on the Rutgers defenders. On the defensive side of the ball is where he really shined, though. Mosely set the tone early by recovering a fumble that otherwise might’ve ended in a touchdown for the Scarlet Knights. Then he made the play of the game when he picked off Rutgers QB Gio Rescigno and took it 75 yards for a pick six.

If Mosely can continue this level of production the Illinois defense has another great playmaker on their hands.

Second Star: Kendrick Foster

Foster got his first career start this weekend and didn’t disappoint. Ever since he began to see more carries in the Nebraska game Foster has shown an impressive downfield ability to truck through defenders and make the most out of almost any run. He continued to do that against Rutgers, rushing for 108 yards on 21 carries and two touchdown scores.

Freshman Reggie Corbin was also once again impressive out of the backfield, but with Wes Lunt injured and the passing game nonexistent against Rutgers, it was up to Foster to shoulder the load on the ground and he did that very admirably. Look for Lovie to continue giving Kendrick the starting nod.

First Star: Illini defense

It was too hard to single out one star amongst the Illinois defense, so we’ll just go with that entire side of the ball. Freshmen Stanley Green and Ahmari Hayes got their first career starts, and each finished with five tackles. Jamal Milan, who saw more time on the defensive line due to Carroll Phillips’ first-half suspension, made a huge impact on the game, forcing two Rutgers fumbles (the first and second forced turnovers of his career). Patrick Nelson continued to impress at safety, racking up another 14 tackles and also recording his first career sack.

Dawune Smoot got consistent pressure on the quarterback, which was a good sign after last week’s lackluster effort against Purdue. Hardy Nickerson finished with 11 tackles, which put him at over 300 tackles in his college career. He was once again the anchor of the defense. And yeah, let’s not forget the five turnovers the Illini forced, the most they’ve forced in a game since 2014. It was truly a team effort on this side of the ball against Rutgers and it worked to perfection.

Even though Rutgers is one of the weakest teams amongst the power five conferences, a Big Ten road win is always impressive and it leaves the Illini with a good taste on their mouths leading up to their matchup with No. 4 Michigan next weekend.