Swarming defense lifts Illinois over Rutgers 38-10
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Three defensive takeaways, including a pick-6, and timely offense carried red-hot Illinois past Rutgers 38-10 on Saturday.
Dele Harding had 12 tackles and an interception return for a touchdown late in the game to lead Illinois (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten Conference).
"Dele, he's been that for us all year," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "He was feeling a little sick before the game, but he's one of our captains and a motivator for us. He's productive."
Brandon Peters was 6-of-11 passing for 120 yards and one touchdown. Dre Brown carried eight times for 31 yards and two touchdowns. Josh Imatorbhebhe had three receptions for 56 yards and a score.
Johnny Langan was 5-of-10 passing for 86 yards and a touchdown for Rutgers (2-7, 0-6). He also threw one interception.
"Turning the ball over twice for touchdowns is obviously tough," said Rutgers interim coach Nunzio Campanile. "But I honestly thought Johnny played a pretty good game."
Campanile, named to the interim spot when coach Chris Ash was fired after four games this season, coached Langan in high school in New Jersey.
Aaron Young carried the ball 12 times for 67 yards to lead the Scarlet Knights. Mohamed Jabbie had three receptions for 64 yards and Rutgers' only touchdown.
The game was tied 10-10 at the half, but Peters unleashed a 54-yard scamper midway through the third quarter to the Rutgers' 2-yard line to set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Brown. On the next Rutgers possession, Nate Hobbs recovered a Langan fumble and ran it 32 yards for a touchdown to put Illinois up 24-10.
Harding forced a fumble with 4:48 left in the third quarter and Illinois scored on the next play, a 52-yard touchdown pass to Imatorbhebhe. Early in the fourth quarter, Harding picked off a Langan pass and ran it back 54 yards for a touchdown.
FLIP THE SWITCH
The Illinois defense was a force all afternoon, The Illini led the nation in fumble recoveries, was second in forced fumbles and second in turnovers gained coming into the game and did nothing but pad those numbers.
"We needed to flip the switch at halftime," Smith said. "We had opportunities early, but the takeaways just jump-started us when we needed it most."
Campanile knew what his team was facing coming into the game.
"We have a lot of young players out there, and we knew that they are kind of a turnover (forcing) machine," Campanile said. "They really caught us in the third quarter and the game got away from us."
Illinois now needs just one win out its three remaining games to secure a bowl appearance for the first time since 2014.
"We like how we have played in the second half of the season, going 3-0 against Big Ten teams," Smith said. "We have to be pumped up now, maybe more so than at any time since I got here. We're one game from being bowl eligible and that is going to lead us the rest of the season."
That path includes road games against Michigan State and Iowa before finishing up at home against Northwestern.
After a slow first-half start, Illinois' defense helped open the offensive floodgates. Many wondered how Illinois would handle its newfound success on the heels of a one-point comeback win over then-No. 6 Wisconsin two weeks ago and a decisive victory over Purdue last week.
Illinois answered those questions and then some, giving Smith, whose job had been in question just a few weeks ago, some breathing room.
Rutgers: Hosts No. 3 Ohio State on Nov. 16.
Illinois: Visits Michigan State on Nov. 9.