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Illini Football Garners First Win In 23-20 Nail-Biter At Rutgers

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James McCourt follows through on an extra point on Saturday in Piscataway NJ.

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — The third time was the charm for Illini placekicker James McCourt.

McCourt drilled a 47-yard field goal with three seconds remaining to give Illinois a 23-20 win over Rutgers, Saturday afternoon in Piscataway, New Jersey.

He said he wasn’t phased by missing two attempts earlier in the 4th quarter.

“That first kick in the fourth quarter, you know, I went out there, felt really good, just pushed it,” McCourt said. “The second one, you know, same thing. Really similar miss. I thought the wind was going to affect the ball a little more than it did. I told coach (Lovie Smith) on the last one that I want it on the right hash just because I could play that wind a little more, felt super confident.”

The game-winner was set up by a Nate Hobbs interception — Illinois’ third pick of the game — thus proving one of coach Lovie’s Smith’s oft-stated philosophical constants.

“Normally, if you take the ball away three times, you have a chance,” Smith said. “It took that today. It didn’t surprise guys, that’s what they’re supposed to do.”

Hobbs described his mindset during the game-saving play.

“I was figuring they were trying to come back inside,” Hobbs said. “But I wanted to stay high because that was my responsibility. Time froze. It was like the ball was in the air, somebody had to get it. It was going to be me.”

Isaiah Williams got the start at quarterback, and ran for 192 yards, an all-time Illini record for a quarterback. Chase Brown added another 131 yards on the ground.

Smith said Williams’ dual-threat capability presents a conundrum to opposing defenses.

“When you have a quarterback who can run the way Isaiah can, (when the defense) continues to play some type of single high safety that’s free, your numbers say that the quarterback runs the ball and there’s nobody on him,” Smith said. “The defender misses in the open field, that’s tough duty.”

Williams, McCourt and starting center Doug Kramer all missed the previous two games due to COVID-19 contact tracing. Hobbs sat out last week with a shoulder injury.

Senior linebacker Jake Hansen led the defense with a game-high 14 tackles, plus a sack, an interception and another tackle for loss.

Scarlet Knights quarterback Noah Vedral completed 21-34 attempts for 256 yards and two touchdowns. But his three interceptions were the difference in the ballgame. Isaih Pacheco led Rutgers with 138 yards rushing.

Illinois returns to action next week at Nebraska. Both teams are now 1-2, after the Huskers defeated Penn State on Saturday. Game time is 11:00am on Fox Sports One.

Rob McColley covers University of Illinois athletics for WILL.

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