Illinois breaks Big Ten losing streak in road win


Austin Yattoni

Illinois quarterback AJ Bush (1) runs the ball during the game against Kent State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018.

By Tatiania Perry, Staff writer

In recent years, the Illinois football program has set fans up for disappointment during Big Ten play. But after losing 13 straight Big Ten games, the Illini broke their losing streak.

In a matchup defined by big plays, Illinois defeated Rutgers 38-17.

“This is a big win for us. Every time you get a Big Ten win, it’s a big win,” said head coach Lovie Smith. “Getting a Big Ten road win is even harder.”

Quarterback AJ Bush saw his first start after a hamstring injury kept him out of the last two games. The graduate transfer collected his first and second career rushing touchdowns as an Illini in the first half and totaled 116 rushing yards, only outrun by running back Reggie Corbin.

“It was great to be back out there with my guys,” Bush said. “I feel pretty close to 100 percent now. We just have to fine-tune some things, but I thought it went pretty well.”

Bush also threw for 89 yards, with one passing touchdown and no interceptions.

The performance was quite different for Rutgers quarterback Artur Sitkowski, who on his first possession of the game was picked off by freshman Jartavius Martin. Sitkowski gave up two more interceptions throughout the game to Del’Shawn Phillips and Nate Hobbs.

The first interception, marked as Martin’s third of the season, set the team up for its first score.

“Our statistics aren’t great right now in the overall picture, but we didn’t have any turnovers today; we were plus-three today,” Smith said. “We had a fourth-down stop. You’re going to be able to win games that way.”

Chase McLaughlin kicked a 39-yard field goal for the first points of the day, but it was Rutgers that scored the first touchdown.

The Illini defense, though they had their struggles throughout the game, came out strong and didn’t waiver after leaving some clear gaps for Rutgers running backs Jon Hillman and Raheem Blackshear. Both Rutgers backs ran for a combined 110 yards and one touchdown.

On the other side, the Rutgers defense struggled with keeping the gaps closed, and Corbin took full advantage.

He gained 137 yards with his longest run being 73 yards for a touchdown.

Illinois, like always, played three quarters consistently, only allowing Rutgers two touchdowns and stopping larger plays relatively quickly.

Usually, fans have had to watch the defense fall apart and the offensive go cold in the fourth quarter, but the Illini changed the storyline in this game. Illinois put up two touchdowns in the final quarter. Ricky Smalling was on the receiving end of the first, and running back Mike Epstein broke out for a 41-yard run for the second.

Illinois snapped its Big Ten losing streak at 700 days, as the team’s last win came against Michigan State in 2016.

“We needed to prove to our fans and our supporters that we are a different team,” Corbin said. “It doesn’t really prove anything to us, because we know who we are and we know we still need to be a lot better.”

Illinois looks to expand on this win next week at the Homecoming game against Purdue.

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