CHAMPAIGN — After a moribund first half Saturday, Illinois went to the locker room tied with lowly Rutgers, and its momentum from a two-game winning streak seemed to be slipping away.
But after quarterback Brandon Peters set up a touchdown with a 54-yard run, the Illini defense took over en route to a 38-10 victory that moved Illinois (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten) one win away from its first bowl game under coach Lovie Smith.
“We needed to flip the switch at halftime,” said Smith, whose defense came up with three takeaways, including two that were returned for touchdowns. “We had opportunities early, but the takeaways just jump-started us when we needed it most.”
The Illini led the nation in fumble recoveries and were second in forced fumbles and takeaways entering the game. During its three-game winning streak, Illinois has scored 52 points off eight takeaways.
Rutgers interim coach Nunzio Campanile knew what his team was facing.
“We have a lot of young players out there, and we knew that they are kind of a turnover [forcing] machine,” he said. “They really caught us in the third quarter, and the game got away from us.”
With one victory in its three remaining games, Illinois will secure a bowl appearance for the first time since 2014.
“We like how we have played in the second half of the season, going 3-0 against Big Ten teams,” Smith said. “We have to be pumped up now, maybe more so than at any time since I got here. We’re one game from being bowl-eligible, and that is going to lead us the rest of the season.”
That path includes road games against Michigan State on Saturday and No. 19 Iowa -before finishing up at home against Northwestern.
The game was tied 10-10 at halftime, but Peters unleashed his long scamper midway through the third quarter to the Rutgers’ 2-yard line to set up a touchdown run by Dre Brown. On the ensuing possession, Nate Hobbs recovered a Johnny Langan fumble and ran it 36 yards for a touchdown to put the Illini up 24-10.
Dele Harding forced a fumble with 4:48 left in the third quarter, and Illinois scored on the next play, a 52-yard touchdown pass to Josh Imatorbhebhe. Early in the fourth quarter, Harding picked off a Langan pass and ran it back 54 yards for a touchdown.
Harding had 12 tackles to lead the Illini defense.
“Dele, he’s been that for us all year,” Smith said. “He was feeling a little sick before the game, but he’s one of our captains and a motivator for us. He’s productive.”
Peters was 6-for-11 passing for 120 yards and one touchdown. Brown carried eight times for 31 yards and two touchdowns. Imatorbhebhe had three receptions for 56 yards and a score.
Langan was 5-for-10 passing for 86 yards and a touchdown for Rutgers (2-7, 0-6). He also threw one interception.
“Turning the ball over twice for touchdowns is obviously tough,” Campanile said. “But I honestly thought Johnny played a pretty good game.”
Campanile, named to the interim spot when coach Chris Ash was fired after four games, coached Langan in high school in New Jersey.
Aaron Young carried the ball 12 times for 65 yards to lead the Scarlet Knights. Mohamed Jabbie had three receptions for 64 yards and Rutgers’ only touchdown.