“Lovieball” provides Illini first victory

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Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Senior linebacker Jake Hansen stands ready on the line of scrimmage during the game against Rutgers on Saturday. Hansen forced a turnover and intercepted the ball to help the Illini get their first win.

By Carson Gourdie, Assistant Sports Editor

He missed. Wide right. For the second time in four minutes, senior kicker James McCourt failed to convert a field goal attempt, setting up Rutgers to steal Illinois’ first victory away from them. Once again, Illinois was on course to find another way to squander a victory. The possibility of a winless season became more real. 

With the clock ticking, the rejuvenated Scarlet Knights just needed a few more yards to set up their own game-winning attempt. Then, senior defensive back Nate Hobbs came to the rescue. 

Behind Hobbs’ last-minute interception, leading to McCourt’s game-winning field goal, the Illini improved to 1-3 while showing the blueprint for success: Lovieball. 

Redshirt freshman quarterback Isaiah Williams played fantastically and gave Illini fans the hope they so desperately craved. Securing the school record for rushing yards by a quarterback in your first start is a good start. But even with his 192 rushing yards, Rutgers was in the driver’s seat to keep Illinois winless and boil head coach Lovie Smith’s seat. 

Illinois will never have the most talented or fastest team. It can’t rely on a top-tier pocket passing quarterback who can outscore teams like Ohio State or Wisconsin. But what it does have is a system where somehow they can routinely force turnovers, the greatest equalizer in football. 

“Usually when you take the ball away three times, you have a chance, and it took that today,” Lovie said. 

Illinois played its most complete defensive game yet, holding Rutgers to its lowest point total of the season. Rutgers, led by Nebraska transfer Noah Vedral, hung 38 on Michigan State and even scored 27 against Ohio State. And though the defense played its best so far, they still bent plenty of times. 

Rutgers totaled 422 yards of offense on the day, including 166 rushing yards. Vedral gashed Illinois twice on long touchdown passes, including a 29-yarder on fourth and third. But Illinois tightened up in the first half before forcing three interceptions in the second half. 

“It’s game changing,” Hobbs said about the turnovers. “As a team, we thrive off turnovers. So when we get those turnovers, we bring energy, juice, momentum. I want to say that’s why we got the dub.” 

It can’t be overstated how big the turnovers were. Two of the picks occurred inside Illini territory. Senior linebacker Jake Hansen, who’s famous for forcing fumbles, got it started with an interception late in the third quarter, which led to a game-tying field goal. 

“Jake is an outstanding player, no matter where he plays,” Lovie said. “We needed all of those big plays he made today, and we had a few.” 

The Illini came into the game as the worst scoring defense in the conference, surrendering nearly 40 points a game. Wisconsin made the secondary look junior varsity. Purdue sliced the Illini early. Minnesota ran through Illinois for over 300 yards on the ground. While the offense was also ineffective, Rod Smith’s offense was never given a chance, as opponents would get up double digits almost immediately. 

It looked like Rutgers was going to continue the trend. Within the first two minutes, the Scarlet Knights hung seven points on the board and added a field goal later in the quarter. Down 10-0, the Illini didn’t give up; they played hungry and delivered their finest performance since Iowa last season.

The Illini started a quarterback who only had 13 pass attempts in his career. Even with a full game now under his belt, Williams only finished with 104 yards while completing 39% of passes. It’s likely if the Illini were trailing multiple scores in the fourth quarter, a comeback for an inexperienced Williams would have been unmanageable. He simply doesn’t have the arm yet. However, by only trailing by three or tied late, the offense had the luxury of continuing to run the ball down the field. 

It can be scary relying on turnovers for success — look at the past three weeks. But Lovie-led teams have a track record of consistently forcing them; it’s what he preaches. 

While a victory over Rutgers doesn’t translate to Big Ten championships, the game showed the Illini aren’t the Big Ten bottom-dwellers pundits predicted. Lovie’s program showed it has a young quarterback that can wreak havoc with his legs. The program showed it hasn’t given up after a disappointing 0-3 start. 

But if Smith wants to have a regular bowl contender, forcing turnovers is a must. Without them today, the Illini would be 0-4, and the conversation this week would have been very different.

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