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Rutgers commits five turnovers in fourth consecutive loss, falls 24-7 to Illinois

PISCATAWAY—The mantra surrounding the Rutgers football team leading up to its matchup with Illinois had been that of a fresh start.

With consecutive blowout losses to No. 2 Ohio State and No. 4 Michigan by a combined score of 136-0 behind them, the Scarlet Knights were ready to embark on a much more manageable schedule in the latter half of their season.

But the only thing fresh about what was ultimately the Knights' fourth consecutive conference loss was the way they fell to the Fighting Illini (2-4, 1-2), 24-7. It wasn't inept offensive play nor video-game like numbers being posted on its defense that led to Rutgers' demise at High Point Solutions Stadium.

In fact Rutgers (2-5, 0-4) finally broke out of its offensive rut, gaining 385 yards of total offense compared to the 151 combined yards it had accumulated against the Buckeyes and Wolverines. The Knights not only out-gained Illinois, they more than doubled the amount of first downs (23 to 10) and owned a five-plus minute advantage in time of possession.

But just as efficient as Rutgers was on offense, it was even more careless with the ball.

The Knights committed a season-high five turnovers — three coming inside Illinois' 30-yard line — and an additional three turnovers on downs. On two of Rutgers' three fourth-down tries, the play began with a botched snap. 

Illinois' win over the Knights was its first victory over an FBS school this season and Lovie Smith's first Big Ten win since taking over as head coach.

“(The turnovers) can’t wipe out the dramatic improvement we had," said offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer, who looked and sounded defeated while delivering an opening statement in his postgame press conference. "As the offensive coordinator, it makes you sick that your guys are in that position. We did some good things, but the bad things we did dramatically outweighed all of the good things that we set out to and did accomplish at times."

Rutgers' ball security troubles began early in the first quarter, when redshirt freshman Jawuan Harris muffed a punt deep inside the Knights' own territory. The Fighting Illini took over from Rutegrs' 11, but the Knights' defense bailed out Harris' special teams blunder after sophomore cornerback Blessaun Austin intercepted a Chayce Crouch pass in the end zone.

On Rutgers' ensuing drive, junior quarterback Chris Laviano and company drove right down the field, setting up shop inside Illinois' 15-yard line with a fresh set of downs. Laviano took a designed quarterback draw up the middle inside the 10-yard line before losing control of the ball while being taken to the ground for the Knights' second turnover of the game. 

When Rutgers got the ball back, it drove deep into Illinois' territory yet again, this time faced with a fourth-and-short from the Illini's 25. On the play, fifth-year senior center Derrick Nelson snapped the ball too early. Laviano got a hand on it, batted it in the air and corralled it, but he was tackled in the backfield for the loss.

"Derrick was just trying to anticipate the snap count," said head football coach Chris Ash. "He thought we would snap a little bit faster. Quarterback didn't tell him to snap it and he snapped it, and it was a bad snap and the quarterback wasn't ready for it."

The Knights' defense had been stout to that point in the game, but following Rutgers' turnover on downs, Crouch connected with Ke'Shawn Vaughn for a 61-yard pickup to set Illinois up in the red zone. Three plays later, Crouch found Kendrick Foster for a 5-yard touchdown, giving the Illini a 7-0 lead.

Two offensive drives ending in punts later, the Knights committed their third turnover of the first half, this time on a fumble by junior running back Robert Martin inside Illinois' 30.

Rutgers had 186 yards of offense and 12 first downs in the first half, but nothing to show for on the scoreboard as it carried three turnovers, a turnover on downs and a 7-0 deficit into the half.

When the Knights' offense took the field for the first time in the latter half, their deficit had ballooned to 14 points — Foster capped off a six-play, 77-yard drive with a 5-yard score to open the half — and a new quarterback was behind center for Rutgers, as Laviano was benched in favor of sophomore Giovanni Rescigno. 

"We needed a spark," Ash said. "We've got an issue at quarterback. We've had one. We need to evaluate. I thought Gio came in and provided a spark for the offense. Moved the ball down the field several times. Had an interception. Missed some throws, but at least he could move the ball with his feet, and I like what he did."

As the Knights faced a 17-0 disadvantage to start the fourth quarter, Rescigno and Rutgers were set up with a fresh set of downs at the Illini's 3-yard line. On the play Rescigno scrambled to his left on what appeared to be a designed run before jumping in the air and flicking the ball over the top of the defense to senior tight end Nick Arcidiacono in the end zone.  

The score was the first of Arcidiacono's career and halted the Knights' 117 minute and 49 second scoreless drought, dating back to the fourth quarter of their Big Ten opener against Iowa.

On the game's ensuing drive, Rutgers forced Illinois into a three-and-out, as the Knights would start with the ball at their own 42, down 10 and over 13 minutes left in the game.

But just as Rutgers was beginning to gain momentum for the first time on the afternoon, it gave it all away on one play. 

On the same drive from Illini's 25-yard line, Rescigno's pass intended for senior wideout Andre Patton was intercepted and returned the other way for a touchdown by Darius Mosely, all but putting a bow on the Knights' fourth-straight loss.

With the game already out of hand, senior running back Justin Goodwin fumbled on the following drive for Rutgers' fifth turnover of the game. 

The Knights entered the day averaging just over one turnover per game.

“We just need to take care of the ball better," Rescigno said. "All in all, we just have to keep getting better for next week. (The play that led to the pick-six) just didn’t work out the way we wanted to. We just have to get over it and move onto the next play.”

Rescigno finished the game 10-for-18 through the air for 120 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He also added 51 yards on the ground across 12 rushes. 

After the game, Ash said the starting quarterback job is "completely open" moving forward and did not support Laviano being the starter for the first time this season. With four quarterbacks — Laviano, Rescigno, junior Zach Allen and freshman Tylin Oden — all getting legitimate snaps this season, it's conceivable that either could be behind center when Rutgers takes on Minnesota (4-2, 1-2) next Saturday in Minneapolis.  

Despite the uncertainty at the quarterback position, the alarming number of turnovers and current four-game losing streak, Ash is optimistic about the direction the Knights are headed.

"We're going to keep grinding," Ash said. "We talked to the players in there. There's a wall that everybody hits at some point, and that wall is the difference between average and good and good to great and great to elite. We're at that wall. We need to find a way to get over it ... There are a lot of positives that I can take out of this game, unlike the last two. The last two, there weren't any positives. We were annihilated. There's no secret to that. This game, there's a lot of positives I can take out of this game that we can build on."

For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @EricMullin_ and @TargumSports on Twitter.

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