Illini win 3rd straight; Book res­cues ND

Smith’s crew earns first 3-game Big Ten win­ning streak since 2007 sea­son

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGO SPORTS - Shan­non Ryan

CHAM­PAIGN — There’s an ex­clu­sive club among Illi­nois de­fen­sive play­ers.

In their meet­ing room, a list of names is high­lighted on a board, mark­ing play­ers who score a touch­down off a turnover.

Cor­ner­back Nate Hobbs added his name Satur­day to that role call that had in­cluded Dele Hard­ing, Milo Ei­fler and Tony Adams.

With a 36-yard touch­down re­turn off a fum­ble re­cov­ery, Hobbs helped the Illini heap more points on Rut­gers in a 38-10 vic­tory at Me­mo­rial Sta­dium.

“Coach (Lovie) Smith has been teas­ing me about it,” Hobbs said of not hav­ing a de­fen­sive touch­down. “Once I got the ball in my hand, I knew ex­actly what I had to do.”

He helped pro­vide the Illini (5-4, 3-3) with their first three-game Big Ten win­ning streak since 2007 and put them at .500 in con­fer­ence play in Novem­ber for the first time since 2010. The Illini are one win from bowl el­i­gi­bil­ity — some­thing they haven’t achieved since 2014.

Illi­nois’ pen­chant for take­aways — and abil­ity to cap­i­tal­ize on them — has been vi­tal this sea­son. Dur­ing their win­ning streak, the Illini have eight take­aways. They snagged three against the Scar­let Knights (2-7, 0-6), turn­ing each one into a sec­ond-half touch­down.

“It’s just a habit,” Hobbs said. Sud­denly, so is win­ning in Cham­paign. Illi­nois was 2-4 three weeks ago. Smith’s name was men­tioned re­peat­edly on hot­seat lists. The idea of a bowl seemed laugh­able to many.

And now?

“This year, this is the turn­around year,” said ju­nior de­fen­sive end Isa­iah Gay, who forced the fum­ble Hobbs re­cov­ered. “We’re mak­ing a big state­ment to all teams.”

Beat­ing then-No. 6 Wis­con­sin, Purdue and Rut­gers has set Illi­nois up to se­cure a sea­son-defin­ing game Satur­day at reel­ing Michi­gan State, which has lost three straight.

Smith went 3-9, 2-10 and 4-8 in his pre­vi­ous sea­sons in Cham­paign. This clearly is his best Illini team — no mat­ter how the sea­son ends.

Ath­letic di­rec­tor Josh Whit­man has been a staunch sup­porter of Smith, whom he hired only a few days af­ter he took over. But many won­dered if an­other bowl-less sea­son would be enough for the Illini to part ways.

Illi­nois has three games re­main­ing. Af­ter Michi­gan State, the Illini play at Iowa and fin­ish their sea­son at home against strug­gling North­west­ern.

“It sets us up for our big­gest game we’ve had in a long time,” Smith said. “We haven’t talked about bowl games, but that would be big for our pro­gram.”

Turnovers have been key for Smith’s teams, in­clud­ing when he led the Bears. His play­ers have em­braced his phi­los­o­phy, which he said was in their “DNA.”

Dre Brown’s 2-yard touch­down run with 9 min­utes, 8 sec­onds left in the third quar­ter broke a 10-10 half­time tie. Quar­ter­back Bran­don’s Peters’ 54-yard run set up the score.

Then Illi­nois went on a take­away spree. Gay’s forced fum­ble popped into Hobbs’ hands, and the cor­ner­back’s touch­down pro­vided a 24-10 lead with 7:29 left in the third.

Rut­gers soon coughed it up again, with Dele Hard­ing forc­ing the ball loose and Stan­ley Green pounc­ing on it.

The Illini made it 31-10 with a 52-yard pass from Peters to Josh Ima­torb­hebhe with 3:30 left in the quar­ter. They fol­lowed with an­other touch­down off a turnover — this time a Hard­ing 54-yard pick-six for a 38-10 lead less than a minute into the fourth.

Smith said his play­ers “flipped the switch at half­time.”

They’ve done that with their sea­son too.

CHARLES REX ARBOGAST/AP

Illi­nois quar­ter­back Bran­don Peters runs for 54 yards as Rut­gers de­fen­sive back Chris­tian Izien chases dur­ing the sec­ond half Satur­day.

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