CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP)- Heading into Saturday’s game, Indiana was 0-6 in the Big Ten. Losing that many conference games makes it hard to find something to play for late in the season, but the Hoosiers didn’t have to look far.
Indiana’s 24-14 victory over Illinois secured their first conference win of the year and kept their bowl-game aspirations alive. But it was also the first Big Ten victory for head coach Tom Allen.
“The first win, the first whatever it is, is always special,” Allen said. “(It’s) one I’ll always remember.”
Richard Lagow was the main catalyst for Indiana, throwing for 289 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday.
The Hoosiers (4-6, 1-6) racked up 428 yards offense and used a balanced attack to leave the Illini as the only winless team in the Big Ten.
Coming into the matchup, Indiana was ranked last in the conference in rushing yards per game at 114.6. But on Saturday, Indiana had 139 rushing yards led by Cole Gest who ran for 82 on 17 carries.
Both teams got off to slow starts, but with 1:28 left in the first quarter Jalen Dunlap recorded his first career interception which set the Illini (2-8, 0-7) up at their own 44-yard line but they went three-and-out.
Morgan Ellison broke the scoreless tie on a 2-yard plunge with just under three minutes left in the first half. His fourth score of the season capped a 10-play, 45-yard drive.
Illinois didn’t give up another rushing touchdown, but Lagow got the job done through the air. He completed 32 of 48 attempts to 10 receivers with Ian Thomas and Simmie Cobbs Jr. both scoring.
Cobbs was second on the team with 54 receiving yards has recorded a touchdown in three straight games.
“Our receiving core is deep,” Lagow said. “I think when you’re playing in rhythm and just going through your reads, not forcing balls, naturally it’s something that will happen.”
The Illini struggled to find much offensive rhythm early. In the first half, Illinois punted seven times and recorded just 72 yards of total offense.
However, the Illini eclipsed that total on one play in the second half. On the first play of Illinois’ eighth drive, Jeff George Jr. threw a 77-yard touchdown pass to Louis Dorsey.
The play would have only been for a first down, but after the initial defender fell down, Dorsey sprinted to the end zone untouched for the ninth-longest play in Illinois history.
“I just saw an open opportunity and I took it,” Dorsey said.
He finished with three catches for 107 yards. It was the first 100-yard game of his career and the most yards by any true freshman tight end in school history.
Caleb Reams also caught a touchdown pass from George the first of Reams’ career early in the fourth quarter. It brought the Illini within three. But that was as close as they would get. Cobbs scored on a 5-yard slant route that shut the door an Illinois comeback.
George threw for 261 yards and two touchdowns, but lost a fumble and threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter. He has thrown 10 interceptions and just seven touchdowns this season.
The Hoosiers recorded eight sacks, 10 tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries in earning their first conference victory since Nov. 26 of last year.
Illinois has now lost 10 consecutive Big Ten games.
“The second half, there was an opportunity there,” coach Lovie Smith said. “We let them score late. That slant route really hurt us.”
Indiana: Allen emphasized all week long how big this game was for the direction of his program. The Hoosiers haven’t had a winning season since 2007 and haven’t won a bowl game since 1991. But with a win over Illinois on Saturday, Indiana’s hope of ending those droughts remains inact.
Illinois: The Illini are still searching for an offensive identity. Smith elected not to go with a two-quarterback system as in past weeks. Although George made some big plays, he still had a hand in three turnovers in the fourth quarter that put the game out of reach.
Freshman Bennett Williams did not play against the Hoosier. Smith benched Williams for violating a team rule. Prior to today, Williams appeared in all nine games for the Illini and racked up 52 tackles third-best on the team. He has also recorded two pass breakups, one forced fumble and has a team-high two interceptions.
YOUNG OFFENSIVE LINE
Indiana does not have one senior on its offensive line. Allen said that the young group made a handful of mistakes against Illinois, but did a fairly good job of keeping a clean pocket for Lagow. Lagow was sacked just two times and hurried twice.
“We’ve had some injuries, we’re already young,” Allen said. “They’re fighting. We got guys that have been battling through.”
For the first time in three games, Illinois played just one quarterback. Freshman Cam Thomas threw for 159 yards last week in his first career start, but did not enter the game against the Hoosiers due to an unspecified injury. George stepped in, making the eighth start of his career and fourth of the season.
Illinos: The Illini play at Ohio State on Saturday.
Indiana: The Hoosiers return home on Saturday to face Rutgers.
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