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Illini urgent for first Big Ten win in 23 months

Lovie Smith believes his team needs a win.

NCAA Football: South Florida at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Without a game last week, head coach Lovie Smith was able to devote the majority of his time evaluating his team’s performance through the first four games of the season and make an appearance on the recruiting trail.

“The one thing that can help our program is to get a win against a Big Ten team,” Smith said.

He’s right. The Illini haven’t won a conference game dating back to Nov. 5, 2016, when Jeff George Jr. led the game-winning drive in a victory over Michigan State, 31-27.

“It’s about playing the way you expect to play,” said defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson. “We’ve got to play better, we’ve got to do some things better. That’s what we’re focused on. Doing those little things, going back to our fundamentals, making adjustments that we have to make, and making it happen.”

Securing a couple Big Ten wins doesn’t just help change the outlook of this season, but the future of Smith’s program as well. Recruits are watching, commits are watching, and the national media has begun placing Smith on the hot seat.

Some could say this week’s game is the Illini’s Super Bowl.

On the stakes, senior lineman and team captain Nick Allegretti said: “This is a big week for the program. We get on the plane, go to Rutgers and get a win, that’s huge for our program. We’ll be 3-2, which we haven’t won three of our first five games since my redshirt freshman year. Getting a road win is hard. Getting a Big Ten win is hard.

“To do both of those at the same time will be huge for us. Then, we’ll come back for Homecoming, and we’re excited for that.”

Who’s at QB?

There’s no official word on whether or not senior quarterback AJ Bush will be good to go this weekend against Rutgers.

Hampered by a hamstring injury, Bush has been sidelined since the first half of Illinois’ Week 2 game vs. Western Illinois.

Offensive coordinator Rod Smith did say that Bush has had some “partial” activity in practice over the bye week and when he is 100 percent, the starting job is still his.

“AJ is our guy,” Rod Smith said. “He had a great camp and did some good things. MJ [Rivers] has shown that if something does happen to [AJ], then he can be the guy as well. He’s played well enough. We got a good situation going forward.

“Knock on wood, no more injuries happen, but if something does, then MJ will be ready to roll. If something happens to him, then Matt [Robinson] will be ready to roll.”

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