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Illinois Football Takeaways (literally): Rutgers

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Defensive turnovers, big plays lead to third straight win

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Nice second half adjustments.

That was the key to yesterday's game against the Scarlet Knights. After sleepwalking through the first half of a 10-10 tie, Lovie ball came to the forefront and the defense responded with some big turnovers.

It was another win closer to bowl eligibility and a resounding one at that.

#LovieBall

You can yell and scream and twist your hair into knots watching it sometimes, but there's no question this defense has taken on the identity of its head coach. Turnovers taken for touchdowns. Pressure with the front four. Sound linebacker play. Semi-competence in the back end. It's a recipe that Lovie Smith has cooked up to win games at both levels, and the players are buying in.

Take Isaiah Gay, for example. A forgotten man along this defensive front, Gay hadn't factored into the D's gameplan since early 2017. The last three weeks, however, his impact has been observed but not really seen, a pressure here, a tackle there. It's been working of late, and a light finally clicked today. Clearly his best game as an Illini, Gay forced his first fumble, returned by Nate Hobbs for a touchdown, recorded a sack, and tipped two passes at the line of scrimmage. From the first snap, he was all over the place, getting upfield and creating havoc. This right here:

Dele Harding is another great example of buying in. After sitting behind Hardy Nickerson, Jr. and Del'shawn Phillips the last two years, it probably was a bit frustrating. He stuck with it, and now could be in a conversation for the best linebacker in the Big Ten. Twelve tackles, a couple for loss. Oh yeah, and the interception return for a touchdown to seal the game. It's been a complete 180 from early in the year, when he looked a little overwhelmed and lost in coverage. Buying in and playing to potential.

Milo Eifler is another example. An up and down year for Milo, this was easily his best game as well. 10 tackles, 2.5 for a loss, with some monster hits thrown in.

Stanley Green. Jamal Milan and Tymir Oliver. Nate Hobbs. The list gets bigger as more players are starting to figure this out. Also, the Illini don't play another spread option team until Northwestern and to say that offense is struggling is an understatement. It's quite the defensive turnaround, albeit against weaker competition recently.

Big Play Brandon

Just when you think Brandon Peters is down and out, he does something that you think "how many Illini quarterbacks have been able to do that in recent years?".

Like this:

And this, especially this:

Not that he was perfect by any means. Conservative playcalling killed any semblance of continuity, and at points Illinois seemed to bash its head against a wall running the football. Yet, when plays needed to be made, the big 6-foot-5 quarterback put the team on his shoulders and made some impressive plays.

Oh, and what a catch by Donny Navarro. Unbelievable effort and concentration.

If this offense can keep its defense off the field, and stretch the defense with some deep throws, 6 or even 7 wins is certainly an attainable goal. It was nice to see Rod Smith adjust after halftime and go deep a few times.

Overall, the biggest takeaway from the last three weeks is that progress is being made. After years of being stuck in the mud, the Illini have a chance to make a bowl game for the first time since 2014. After a 2-4 start, that seemed highly improbable. Good on Lovie Smith and these players for continuing to grind and finally seeming to turn a corner. Keep it up.