Illini win 3rd straight; Book rescues ND
Smith’s crew earns first 3-game Big Ten winning streak since 2007 season
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.
“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.
Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters runs for 54 yards as Rutgers defensive back Christian Izien chases during the second half Saturday.