Rutgers wins first Big Ten game in two years with 35-24 road triumph over Illinois
CHAMPAIGN, Ill -- At season's end — at least record-wise — no one will be able to say the Rutgers football team regressed from last year.
There is a "2" in the win column, and whether that lasts until the end of season or not, the Scarlet Knights will at worst stay even.
That number is the product of the team's best Saturday of the year so far, as Rutgers (2-4, 1-2) made the trip to Champaign to defeat Illinois (2-4, 0-3), 35-24, in what was its first Big Ten win since a 55-52 win over Indiana in 2015.
"In the big picture, this is a huge victory," said head coach Chris Ash. "Huge win. ... To be able to win in the Big Ten when people say you can't, shouldn't belong, you're not good enough ... it is huge for the program."
The Knights offense ran through its rush — with 274 yards shared among five players, the visitors collected their most rushing yards in a Big Ten game.
That effort was led by graduate transfer Gus Edwards, who was due for a solid game after senior Robert Martin had upped his performance in the first few games of the season. On 21 attempts, Edwards paced the position group with 91 yards.
"The emphasis this whole week just running the ball," Edwards said. "The guys up front had to win the game for us. And I feel like they stepped up to the plate, and they did a great job creating holes."
Like most others at the unit, Edwards topped off his day with a touchdown — 2, in fact — and Rutgers running backs scored all 5 of the team's touchdowns in Saturday's game, with Martin, freshman Raheem Blackshear and senior Josh Hicks nabbing one each.
It was a fruitful day for the Knights backfield, collecting 5 touchdowns through the rush for the first time against a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) opponent since 2003 against Navy.
But the running game was not restricted to the backs themselves, as junior quarterback Giovanni Rescigno — an old face getting his first start since November of last year — got in on the action with 41 rushing yards of his own.
And though he didn't go the passing route much, Rescigno still had 89 yards to show for it, with wide receivers Janarion Grant and Dacoven Bailey on the other end. He, along with the rest of his team, had a lot to be happy about after the game.
"It was awesome," Rescigno said. "Just being with the guys, celebrating with the guys, as well with coach Ash, it's something we've been waiting for."
But the biggest question going into Saturday's matchup — aside from the starting quarterback decision — was whether or not the secondary would be able to function properly without safety Saquan Hampton and cornerback Blessuan Austin.
Though pass coverage proved spotty on numerous occasions, with receivers often wide open in the middle of the field, converted defensive backs like sophomore Jawuan Harris made up for it in other areas.
Harris led the entire defense with 11 tackles, amassing a forced fumble and an interception in his first career start at safety. Harris' partner at safety, sophomore K.J. Gray, had himself a pick as well.
On a grand scale, tackling for the Knights was a much more successful endeavor than in other games, where teams had traditionally garnered first downs left and right off of Rutgers' empty efforts.
But in all areas of the defense, tackling looked sharper than ever, often saving the team from its mistakes in coverage and in possession, of which there were quite a few.
Still — for the first time in a long time — the Knights have something to celebrate. Almost two years after their last conference win, Ash and his team found themselves soaked in emotion (and a lot of water) in the locker room following the game.
Forget whatever streaks there are. Until tomorrow, this one counts.
"Just so happy for those guys," Ash said. "They've been through a lot in the last couple of years. We've worked them really hard, and they've been through a lot of down times. And they've never given up, never quit."
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