PISCATAWAY, N.J. — James McCourt overcame two long misses in the fourth quarter to hit a 47-yard field goal with three seconds left to lift Illinois past Rutgers 23-20 for the Illini’s first win of the season.
Rutgers’ offense came out quick, with quarterback Noah Vedral finding Bo Melton on a 29-yard pitch and catch to cap off a six-play, 75-yard drive to make it 7-0 just 1:57 into the game.
While starting quarterback Brandon Peters was missing his third straight game following a COVID-19 test, backup Isaiah Williams got the start after his quarantine ended. He was the fourth starting quarterback of the season for Illinois (1-3, 1-3 Big Ten). After having 12 players out due to COVID-19 protocols against Minnesota last week, it was just Peters, who was on the sidelines in street clothes, and redshirt freshman tight end Griffin Moore — who did not make the trip.
Rutgers' defensive lineman Mike Teverdov stripped Williams, cornerback Max Melton recovered and the Scarlet Knights took it over on Illinois' 29-yard line with 7:52 left in the first quarter. That set up former Rutgers soccer player Ambrosio Valentino for his first career field goal attempt, a 29-yarder, for a 10-0 lead.
Illinois answered courtesy of Williams, who had five-straight carries, and finished it off with his first score on a 3-yard touchdown run. The redshirt freshman finished with a game-high 192 yards rushing on 31 carries to overcome a 7-for-19 passing effort.
Rutgers (1-3, 1-3) closed the first-half scoring with a 26-yard field by Valentino to make it 13-7.
Illinois made it 13-10 with 8:59 left in the third quarter after James McCourt hit his first FG attempt of the season from 29 yards.
Rutgers countered with Melton having a career-long 66-yard touchdown reception on third and 10 for a 20-10 lead with 7:43 left in the third. It was Melton's second two-score game of his career. He did it for the first time two weeks ago against Indiana.
Illinois responded with a six-play, 60-yard touchdown drive. Running back Mike Epstein scored on a direct snap from a yard out to make it 20-17 with 4:54 left in the third quarter, before McCourt tied it up at 20 early in the fourth quarter on a 23-yard field goal.
McCourt missed a 54-yard field with 7:20 left, setting up Rutgers with good field position. But Vedral threw his second interception of the game on third-and-three, and gave Illinois the ball back on its own 26-yard line. The Illini drove to Rutgers' 28-yard line to before McCourt missed wide right from 45 yards with 3:07 remaining.
But Vedral threw his third interception with Rutgers having first-and-10 on Illinois' 37-yard line. McCourt finally made good with the game winner and gave Illinois its first lead of the game at 23-20.
Isaiah Pacheco had 134 yards on 20 carries to lead Rutgers, while Chase Brown added 135 yards on 17 carriers for Illinois. Vredral finished 21-of-34 for 259 yards and two touchdowns.
After a hot start, Rutgers’ offense could never really find its way, and Vedral’s interceptions proved to be costly as Illinois chipped back into the game, eventually taking the lead for the first time on a game-winning kick.
STARTING SAFETY OUT; TACKLE DOWN
Rutgers was without safety Brandon White, who was on the sidelines in street clothes. The Ohio State transfer and former Rose Bowl MVP has 21 tackles and an INT in three games. Illinois right tackle Alex Palczewski hurt his right knee on the first drive and was on crutches on the sidelines for the rest of the game.
Illinois will seek back-to-back wins with a trip to Nebraska (1-2, 1-2 Big Ten) next Saturday, who just secured its first win over Penn State (1-4, 1-4 Big Ten).
Rutgers will host struggling Michigan Thursday at 7:30 p.m.