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Boilermakers rally past Illini, who drop their fourth straight

Aidan O’Connell connected with T.J. Sheffield on a 14-yard scoring pass with 5:44 left for Saturday’s only touchdown, giving Purdue a 13-9 victory over Illinois.

Illinois v Purdue
Purdue’s TJ Sheffield celebrates after scoring the go-ahead touchdown against Illinois on Saturday in West Lafayette, Ind.
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Illinois coach Bret Bielema faced a decision on fourth down Saturday that was similar to one he faced a week ago.

Neither worked out for him.

Last week, leading by seven with just over five minutes left and facing fourth-and-one at Maryland’s 40-yard line, Bielema chose to punt. The Illini ended up losing by three.

On Saturday, leading by three with 9:33 left and facing fourth-and-two at Purdue’s 34, he chose to punt again. And again, the Illini ended up losing, this time 13-9.

“I’m trying to win a game, not lose a game, and I know that sounds silly because we just lost it,” Bielema said after Illinois (1-4, 1-2 Big Ten) lost its fourth in a row. “But it’s the decision I’d make 100 times over —ball on the 5, the defense has been playing that way the whole way. I’d do it 100 times over.”

Whether Illini fans would is another story. The team largely was rolling behind running back Josh McCray, who finished with 24 carries for 156 yards in his first start. But it wasn’t enough to sway Bielema.

Frustration already is simmering after another close loss. Three of Illinois’ four defeats have come by an average of 4.7 points. And though the Illini’s play certainly can be questioned, so can Bielema’s decisions.

Purdue coach Jeff Brohm’s decision to change quarterbacks at halftime worked in his favor. After relieving Jack Plummer and throwing interceptions on his first two series, Aidan O’Connell took the ball after Illinois’ punt and marched the Boilermakers 94 yards, capping the drive with a 14-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Sheffield with 5:44 left.

“We just felt like because we became one-dimensional, we think Aidan is our most accurate thrower and that’s not a knock on Jack,” Brohm said. “He stands in there. he’s poised, he played to the end and he helped us find a way to win.”

It wasn’t easy under the circumstances. Purdue (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) started the day without top wide receiver David Bell (concussion) and top running backs Zander Horvath and King Doerue and lost starting tight end Payne Durham in the first half after a jarring hit knocked his helmet loose.

Illinois had its own injury woes. After running back Chase Brown and cornerback Devon Witherspoon started the game on the bench, the team scratched its top defensive player, linebacker Jake Hansen, following warmups. All three have undisclosed injuries.

Purdue’s defense clinched the victory by forcing three straight incompletions by Illini quarterback Brandon Peters from its own 19. Peters went 14-for-26 passing for 100 yards with one fumble. All of Illinois’ points came from James McCourt, who made field goals of 51, 35 and 45 yards.