CHAMPAIGN — If the University of Illinois showed glimpses of traction last week climbing the mountain that must be traversed to field a presentable football team, it all came tumbling down in an avalanche of mistakes Saturday.
In a performance that was dismal on every level, and made worse by a flurry of injuries, Illinois offered little resistance as Rutgers ended its 16-game Big Ten losing streak with a 35-24 victory at Memorial Stadium.
Shabby tackling. Penalties. Turnovers. Awful decisions. Illinois misfired repeatedly against a struggling Rutgers team it beat by 17 points last season in New Jersey.
Illini coach Lovie Smith, who began losing his voice mid-week and who spoke with a gravely whisper after the game, had a hard time accounting for the breakdowns. He mentioned the inability to slow Rutgers’ running game and Illinois’ own troubles running as major factors.
Rutgers rushed for 274 yards including 93 and a pair of touchdowns by Gus Edwards.
“All losses are tough but it seems like some losses are a little tougher,” Smith said.
“You can’t let a team run the ball on you like that. We missed some tackles, but first our defensive line got knocked off the ball.
“Offensively we turned the ball over and that compounded things.
“We didn’t get the guys ready and that always starts with the head football coach. It’s disappointing. Thank God it only costs us one loss.”
And a few players.
Wide receiver Mike Dudek, who missed all of the 2015 and 2016 seasons with ACL injuries, left the game in the third quarter with what Smith said was a knee issue. He did not characterize the severity of the injury. Linebacker Julian Jones also left with a knee injury.
Running back Mike Epstein, the team’s leading rusher, was injured last week against Iowa and was on crutches Saturday with what Smith said was a season-ending foot injury.
Guard Nick Allegretti, the only non-freshman starter on the offensive line, limped off the field but did return.
And starting cornerback Tony Adams and safety Patrick Nelson did not play.
Rutgers (2-4, 1-2) moved the ball consistently against the Illini and the only reason Illinois stayed somewhat close was due to three lost Rutgers fumbles.
But Rutgers finished three first-half drives with touchdown runs while Illinois countered with Ra’Von Bonner’s 1-yard TD run and Chase McLaughlin’s 43-yard field goal to trail 21-10 at the half.
Illinois (2-4, 0-3) received the second half kickoff and started with a promising drive that took the ball to the Rutgers 26. But a Jeff George Jr. pass to Dudek sailed high, glanced off his hands and was picked off by safety K.J. Gray.
The score was still 21-10 when Rutgers punted later in the third quarter, a kick that rolled 60 yards to the Illini 21. With main punt returner Dudek already out with his knee injury and No. 2 punt returner Tony Adams unable to play, freshman Carmoni Green was deep for Illinois.
For some reason, as the ball was rolling to a halt Green tried to jump on it and failed to control the ball. It went as a fumble recovered by Rutgers.
Two plays later Edwards slashed into the end zone and the Rutgers lead was 28-10.
What was Green thinking?
“It’s a tough situation for a freshman,” Smith said. “He’s probably our fourth punt returner and it’s a tough position to put him in and he didn’t handle it well.”
Finally Illinois struck for a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns through the air, one on a 30-yard pass from George to Ricky Smalling, the other a 9-yard toss to Louis Dorsey.
But any hopes for some late-game heroics were dashed when Illinois’ run defense collapsed again.
Needing a stop late in the fourth quarter, Illinois surrendered a 41-yard run by Raheem Blackshear and a 16-yard touchdown run by Robert Martin.
One of the few positives was the play of Smalling, who made five catches for 111 yards and his first career touchdown. But he also had two drops.
George completed 20 of 38 passes for 308 yards. But his two interceptions were costly.
Players struggled to explain what happened. On the one hand, they agreed they had one of their best weeks of practice. On the other hand, they agreed they looked flat from the start.
“Losing at home like that, it’s a tough deal,” George said. “We have to find a way to be more competitive, as a team and each individual player, myself included.
“We did practice well this week but that doesn’t matter when you come out on Saturday and decide not to show up.”