CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — After a 56-0 beat down by then-No. 11 Ohio State two weeks ago, Rutgers had hit rock bottom — particularly in the Big Ten.
The Scarlet Knights tried to turn their lowest point into a turning point on Saturday, managing nearly 400 yards of total offense in a 35-24 win over Illinois.
Gus Edwards led the way for Rutgers (2-4, 1-2), rushing for 91 yards and two touchdowns as it ended a 16-game losing streak in the Big Ten.
The Scarlet Knights led the entire way for their first conference victory since 2015 at Indiana.
“Nobody gave us a chance to come out here and win a football game,” Rutgers coach Chris Ash said. “I know that, but nobody gave up on each other in that locker room.”
Rutgers rushed for a season-high 274 yards. Edwards, Raheem Blackshear and Josh Hicks all scored touchdowns. Blackshear provided the most exciting run — a 19-yard gain up the middle on the Scarlet Knights’ second possession that he finished by running over defensive back Jalen Dunlap at the goal line.
Jeff George Jr. was 20-of-38 passing for a career-high 308 yards and a pair of touchdowns for Illinois (2-4, 0-3). George also threw two interceptions, totaling 12 in seven career games for the Illini, who have now lost six consecutive Big Ten games.
“Losing at home like that, it’s a tough deal,” George said. “We’ve got to find a way to be more competitive as a whole team — each individual player, myself included.”
The Scarlet Knights offense wasn’t nearly as effective through the air. Ash benched Kyle Bolin — who started in the team’s first five games — and went with Giovanni Rescigno, who completed 5 of 10 passes for 89 yards.
However, Rescigno picked up 45 yards on the ground.
“I think the stats speak for themselves,” Rescigno said. “So shout out to the o-line. … They really dominated up front and I think that was huge for our success.”
Ra’Von Bonner scored Illinois’ only rushing touchdown midway through the second quarter. After a 19-yard reception by Louis Dorsey to start to the drive, Ricky Smalling made a tough catch on the right sideline to put the Illini in the red zone. Bonner finished it with a 1-yard plunge on fourth-and-goal.
Despite its offensive woes, Illinois was still in the game late in the third. Trailing by 11, the Illini forced a three-and-out but Carmoni Green fumbled on the punt return. Rutgers recovered it and took over at the Illinois 21. Two plays later, Edwards scored on a 5-yard rush that put the Scarlet Knights ahead by three scores.
Smalling scored the first touchdown of his career in the fourth and finished with a career-high five catches for 111 yards.
“(This) isn’t where we want to be, but that’s where we are,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “When you have a performance like this, thank God you get a chance to play another game.”
Running back Mike Epstein will most likely miss the rest of the season for Illinois with a foot injury. Smith made the announcement following the game after Epstein failed to suit up against Rutgers. The loss serves as a huge blow the Illini’s offense. Epstein leads the team with 346 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
RUTGERS: After being shut out by Ohio State, Rutgers’ offense bounced back with a big performance against the Illini. The Scarlet Knights didn’t score through the air but rushed for the most yards in program history against a Big Ten opponent.
ILLINOIS: The Illini have taken a few steps back since the beginning of the season. After a strong performance against Western Kentucky, Illinois’ offense has continued to struggle. George has made more plays down field than Chayce Crouch — who started in the team’s first four games — but his interceptions have made it hard for the team to find a rhythm.
Illinois will face Minnesota next week on the road.
Rutgers returns home next Saturday to take on Purdue.
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