PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Riding a four-game losing streak, all Illinois coach Lovie Smith wanted was for a couple of his players to make some big plays.
Halfback Kendrick Foster did it early, Darius Mosely came through late and the Illini defense stepped up all game in forcing five turnovers in a 24-7 win over mistake-prone Rutgers 24-7 Saturday.
“We feel good about winning the football game, yes,” Smith said. “About this one game. You have to celebrate every game to feel good about it. Sense of relief? Yeah. You can give it a few different descriptions. There definitely was a lot of excitement. There’s nothing like seeing a locker room after a big win and that’s what we had today.”
Foster, who rushed for 108 yards on 21 carries, ran 5 yards for a touchdown and caught a 5-yard scoring pass from first-time starter Chayce Crouch in helping the Fighting Illini (2-4, 1-2 Big Ten) win for the first time since the season opener.
The Illini defense forced five turnovers, recovering four fumbles and getting the game-clinching, fourth-quarter 75-yard interception return for a touchdown from Mosely, who also had a fumble recovery.
“We started him for the first time at the nickel position and that was probably the play of the game, that long interception return,” Smith said. “… Times like when you have a four game losing streak going you need someone to elevate their game. He did.”
Gio Rescigno, who replaced Chris Laviano at the start of the second half, threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Nick Arcidiacono on the first play of the fourth quarter to snap an 11-quarter scoring drought and get Rutgers (2-5, 0-4) within 17-7.
It wasn’t enough to prevent the Scarlet Knights from losing their fourth straight game.
Rescigno had Rutgers at the Illini 25 with a first down on the next series, but Mosely intercepted his short pass to the left side. The clincher came after play was delayed a couple of minutes for an injury Scarlet Knights lineman J.J. Denman.
“It didn’t work out the way we thought it would, but it happens,” Rescigno said. “You have to get over it and move on to the next play.”
The first half was dominated by mistakes.
After having his first-quarter TD run following a muffed punt nullified by a holding penalty, Crouch threw an interception in the end zone.
Laviano (7 of 12 for 62 yards) and halfback Robert Martin both lost fumbles in Illinois’ territory. The low point for the Scarlet Knights might have been seeing Laviano and Rescigno mishandle snaps in the shotgun formation on fourth-down plays.
“You get five turnovers in a game and really you have no chance to win a football game,” Rutgers coach Chris Ash said. “That’s what it came down to. I thought we did a lot of good things on both sides of the ball. We ran the ball better. We threw the — at times threw the ball better today. Had a little energy going. And every time we were in critical situations, shot ourselves in the foot.”
Illinois: Crouch played well, starting for the injured Wes Lunt. He was 6 of 14 for 92 yards and ran 11 times for 25. Lunt missed the game with a back injury sustained last week.
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights are clearly the worst team in the conference. Rescigno, who was 10 of 18 for 120 yards, clearly earned the right to start next week although Ash said it would be quarterback competition this week.
NUMBERS: Rutgers outgained Illinois 385-320 in total yards and had the ball for almost 33 minutes. The Scarlet Knights were 9 of 16 on third-down attempts. Illinois was 4 of 13.
Illinois: The Illini travel to No. 4 Michigan next Saturday.
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights are at Minnesota next Saturday.
AP College Football: collegefootball.ap.org