Illinois 24, Rutgers 7
PISCATAWAY, N.J. - At least Illinois is better than somebody.
It may have taken one of the worst power-five conference teams to turn the ball over seven times, but it still counts as an Illinois win. A battle of Big Ten bottom feeders certainly lived up to the billing, but Illinois (2-4, 1-2 Big Ten) took advantage of Rutgers' many miscues to earn Lovie Smith's first career Big Ten win.
The Scarlet Knights (2-5, 0-4 Big Ten) won the total yardage battle (385 to 320) but turned it over seven times. Six of the turnovers came in Illinois territory: three lost fumbles, two bobbled snaps on fourth downs that led to turnovers on down and an interception.
Illinois struggled to take advantage early, scoring just seven points on Rutgers' four first-half turnovers. Just as Rutgers started to creak open a door of opportunity, Darius Mosely's 75-yard interception return for a touchdown with 9:32 left in the fourth quarter closed it shut.
The Illini offense -- which came into the game ranked sixth in the Big Ten in rushing offense a year after finishing last in the conference in rushing -- again committed to the ground game and found success.
Following an effective relief appearance last week, sophomore quarterback Chayce Crouch struggled in his first career. With Wes Lunt missing his first start since the 2014 season due to a back injury, Crouch completed 6 of 14 passes for 92 yards and a touchdown (five yards to Foster). He threw an interception inside the red zone during the first quarter. He also ran for just 25 yards on 11 carries. He attempted just three passes in the second half.
The Illini defense held Rutgers scoreless for three quarters, but the Scarlet Knights ended an 11-quarter scoreless drought with a three-yard jump-pass from backup quarterback Giovanni Rescigno to tight end Nick Arcidiacono.
Redshirt freshman safety Patrick Nelson led the Illini with 14 tackles, and senior Dawuane Smoot had a season-high three tackles for loss. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Jamal Milan forced two fumbles.
The Illini made changes to its defense with true freshman free safety Stanley Green and JUCO transfer cornerback Ahmari Hayes making their first career starts. Green, who unseated four-year starter Taylor Barton, finished with five tackles, while Hayes added four.
What it means
Illinois might not be the worst team in the Big Ten, but it's barely better -- and that's scary given the quality of this Rutgers team. Hey, a win is a win and the Illini can hopefully gain some confidence with actually getting a win. But there are plenty of concerns lingering from an ugly game. While fans may understand Lovie took over a rebuild job, the Illini staff hasn't put together many glimmers of hope for the future either. The Illini obviously lack some talent, but they also continue to look undisciplined at times. The Illini appear to have some flawed opponents remaining on the schedule, including Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan State and Northwestern. But the Illini will be underdogs in all their games, including massive underdogs next week at Michigan.
What went right
The Illini running backs continue to make plays. Foster continued to run hard, Corbin continued to make plays with his shiftiness and even Ke'Shawn Vaughn made a big impact. Lining up at wide receiver for several plays, Vaughn took a receiver screen 61 yards to the Rutgers 10 to set up the Illini's first-half touchdown. The Illini's only playmakers are the running backs and Vaughn. It may be worth a shot to get all three on the field at the same time more often and have at least two on the field at all times.
Illini senior defensive end Dawuane Smoot had his best game of the Big Ten season, recording three tackles for loss. He single-handedly dominated one Rutgers second-half drive with his disruption. The Illini senior has the potential to do that and will be a high NFL Draft pick, but Illinois needs to see it more often.
Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Jamal Milan forced two fumbles and looks like the Illini's best defensive tackle. He's a building block for the future.
What went wrong
The Illinois coaching staff continues to make some glaring mistakes that cost the Illini points. The clock management at the end of the first half was abysmal. Foster ran to the 30-yard line with 33 seconds left. While the play clock stopped temporarily for the first down, the clock re-started and the Illini didn't call one of their timeouts, letting 20 seconds run off the clock before they ran a play. Illinois then took a two-yard loss to the center the ball for Chase McLaughlin's 51-yard field goal attempt, even though they didn't spot the ball in the center of the field last week for McLaughlin's potential game winner. The clock management may have cost Illinois a more manageable field goal distance.
Illinois continues to be an undisciplined team and continues to shoot itself in the foot. A Gabe Megginson chop block on the Illini's second drive was costly. The Illini were running the ball well on the drive but the chop block forced Illinois into a 1st-and-25. This Illini offense which has little big-play ability, especially with Crouch at the helm, can't afford to put itself behind the sticks like that.
Rutgers gave Illinois a gift on a first-quarter muffed punt. But the Illini failed to score despite starting at the Rutgers 11-yard line. Tyler White was called for holding on a Crouch touchdown run (Crouch likely wouldn't have made it without the hold), and then Crouch threw an ill-advised interception on third down.
Third downs continue to haunt the Illini. The Illinois offense couldn't stay on the field to ice the game away, converting on just 4 of 13 third downs. The Illinois defense couldn't get off the field except when Rutgers turned it over, allowing Rutgers to convert 9 of 16 third downs.
Chase McLaughlin started the season 8-for-8 on field goals. He's made one of his last four. You have to wonder if that missed game winner messed with his psyche. Though, all three misses are from 40-plus yards.
Illinois heads to Ann Arbor on Saturday for a 2:30 p.m. kickof f at No. 4 Michigan. Michigan leads the all-time series 69-232, including a 33-11-1 record at the Big House. Entering this week, ESPN's Football Power Index ranked Jim Harbaugh's team No. 1 in the country. The Wolverines rank No. 1 in the country in scoring defense (10.3 points per game) and No. 4 in scoring defense. This is the Illini's toughest game on the schedule, and Harbaugh isn't afraid to run up the score. Needless to say, a win would be one of the biggest upsets in program history.