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Illinois’ 13-game Big Ten losing streak ends at Rutgers

The Illini toppled the Knights for Illinois’ first conference win in 700 days.

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

The streak is over.

After 700 days without a Big Ten victory, Illinois pounded Rutgers, 38-17, on Saturday afternoon at HighPoints Solution Stadium in Piscataway, New Jersey. The conference win is Lovie Smith’s third in 20 tries over three years as Illinois’ head coach, and the Illini’s first since defeating Michigan State on Nov. 5, 2016.

Illinois (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) built its first Big Ten win in 100 weeks on a 10-point halftime lead, yet the streak looked as if it would continue after Jon Hilliman’s 32-yard touchdown run pushed Rutgers ahead with five minutes remaining in the first quarter.

That’s when Illinois ran for a trio of scores over a nine-minute span, opened by a pair of rushing touchdowns from grad transfer quarterback AJ Bush, who made his first start since the second game of the season after being sidelined with a hamstring injury. Tailback Reggie Corbin followed Bush’s second score—a 41-yard scramble—with a 73-yard TD midway through the second quarter, giving Illinois a 24-7 lead.

But Rutgers freshman quarterback Art Sitkowski rallied a late Rutgers score on a 9-for-9 passing drive to close the first half with just a 10-point deficit. The error-prone freshman also aided Illinois’ defense by tossing three interceptions—his ninth, 10th and 11th on the season—to set Illinois up for 10 points.

The Scarlet Knights (1-5, 0-3 Big Ten), who have lost five straight games after beating Texas State to open a 2018 campaign with increased expectations, received the ball to open the second half, and continued driving down the field, only to have their possession ended on a shanked 47-yard field goal attempt by backup kicker Gavin Haggerty.

Sitkowski led one more late drive midway through the fourth quarter, but Rutgers was forced to settle for a field goal after a pair of incomplete passes and tackle behind the line of scrimmage by Nate Hobbs inside the five-yard line.

Illinois secured its first conference game with more than 30 points on Ricky Smalling’s touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter—Bush’s first Illinois touchdown pass. The Illini had not scored 30 points since defeating Michigan State, 31-27, in 2016. Illinois has scored at least 30 points in three of its five games this season, tying its most such games in a season since 2013.

Mike Epstein added one more touchdown for Illinois on a 41-yard run on the first play from scrimmage after Rutgers failed an attempt on an onside kick.

Moments that Mattered

Bush scoop and score: It wasn’t the prettiest way to score his first touchdown as an Illini, but Bush recorded his first points of the season with a late rushing score in the first quarter. Bush fumbled the initial snap, but recovered and ran for the two-yard touchdown, giving Illinois a 10-7 lead at the end of the first quarter.

Bush really could not throw the ball too well, finishing with just 10 completions for 89 yards, but his ability to take care of the ball and manage the game was more than enough for the Illini victory.

Scrambling on 2nd-and-long: In Bush’s big day on the ground, no run may have been bigger than a 14-yard run on the 2nd-and-18 late in the third quarter. Bush’s rush made his first-down completion on 3rd-and-4 manageable, and led to Smalling’s touchdown early in the fourth.

Hobbs Pick: Illinois clinched the victory with a late interception of Sitkowski, via Hobbs. It is the 19th straight game that Illinois forced a turnover (a la #LovieBall).

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Up Next

Illinois returns to Champaign for its Homecoming game versus Purdue next Saturday, Oct. 12 at 2:30 p.m.

The Boilermakers were off this week after winning their past two games following an 0-3 start. Purdue has won the past two meetings in the rivalry.