WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The story of the University of Illinois’ frustrating football season seemed to crystallize early in the third quarter and just thinking about it made coach Lovie Smith wince.
Mistakes and failed opportunities — a theme in what is now a seven-game losing streak — killed Illinois’ hopes to seize a winnable game Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium. Instead, Purdue ended its own three-game losing skid with a 29-10 victory.
Illinois had a golden chance when Purdue fumbled a punt four minutes into the second half. Illinois’ Michael Marchese recovered at the Purdue 26-yard line.
With the Boilermakers clinging to a slender 13-10 lead, all possibilities were in play. Score a touchdown and Illinois could grab the lead. Kick a field goal and it’s a tie game.
Instead, Illinois found a way to turn opportunity into regret.
Freshman Cam Thomas, who got his first career start and played most of the game at quarterback, threw incomplete on first down. Then Kendrick Foster’s run was stuffed for no gain on second down.
On third-and-10 from the 26, Illini freshman offensive tackle Vederian Lowe was whistled for a false start, pushing the ball back to the 31. Then Thomas failed to get the offense lined up in time and a delay of game penalty pushed it back further, this time to the 36.
And on third-and-20, Thomas threw incomplete. Now backed up to the 36, Illinois was forced to punt.
At a time it needed an offensive boost and given the ball within field goal range, Illinois got no points.
“That was a bad sequence for us,” Smith said, shaking his head. "We can’t get a penalty there. Then, after the penalty, to get a delay…
“That’s bad football right there. We never recovered from that sequence.”
It got worse on fourth down when punter Blake Hayes pooched the ball perfectly. It should have been downed inside the Purdue 5. Instead, Illinois watched it roll into the end zone for a touchback.
During the course of the day, Illinois repeatedly hurt itself with penalties (9 for 66 yards). And injuries, which are now mounting, didn’t help.
Illinois had to reshuffle its offensive line when center Doug Kramer was ruled too banged up to play. So Nick Allegretti moved from guard to center, Gabe Megginson played much of the way at guard, and Christian DiLauro, who had lost his starting tackle job, played both guard spots, both tackle spots and tight end.
The result was a less-than-stellar performance by the offensive line. Purdue had five sacks and nine tackles for loss.
Illinois’ inventory of running backs also was greatly reduced when Ra’Von Bonner (concussion) and Reggie Corbin (unspecified injury) were ruled out. Foster and Thomas handled the bulk of the rushing attempts.
Then after settling in and keeping the Illini in the game into the third quarter, the defense started to fade.
Purdue outscored Illinois 16-0 in the second half, despite losing starting quarterback David Blough to a serious-looking ankle injury. He was carted off the field early in the fourth quarter on a hit by Illini safety Stanley Green.
Initially Green was called for targeting, which would have been his second ejection of the season. Upon review, officials reversed that call.
Blough was replaced by Elijah Sindelar, who quickly threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Cole Herdman. A final rushing touchdown by 260-pound running back Richie Worship gave Purdue its winning margin.
It appears Thomas is Illinois’ main quarterback moving forward.
He was in on the bulk of the plays, although Jeff George Jr. came in long enough to throw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Louis Dorsey in the first quarter. That tied the game 7-7 after Purdue had taken a 7-0 lead on D.J. Knox’s 33-yard run.
George finished the game when Thomas made an early exit for the locker room. He appeared to be banged up when Purdue was whistled for a horse collar tackle dragging him down in the fourth quarter.
But Thomas appeared at the postgame interview session and sounded excited to have gotten so much action.
“Right before we got to the field (offensive coordinator Garrick McGee) told me I was going to start and to get my head together,” Thomas said. “I thought it was very beneficial. I felt like I made strides today.”
Thomas completed 10 of 20 passes for 150 yards. He did not throw an interception and he carried 14 times for 30 yards.
Purdue (4-5, 2-4) outgained Illinois (2-7, 0-6) in total yardage 435-250.
“The effort is there,” Smith said. “But we have to play smarter football. The product isn’t what it eventually will be, so we just keep working.”
George summed up the mood.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” he said. “I’m sick of losing, that’s all there is to it. I’m sick of it and I know our guys are sick of it. We have to find a way to get out of this rut.”
Illinois returns home to play Indiana at 11 a.m. Saturday.