CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Three times this season Illinois has been able to overcome defensive and special teams mistakes with comebacks that produced wins.
With quarterback Wes Lunt on the sideline on Saturday against Purdue, asking for a fourth proved to be too much.
Lunt left the game in the fourth quarter with a calf injury and the Boilermakers gashed the Illini defense for 349 rushing yards on the way to a 38-27 upset.
The Illini (3-3, 0-1 Big Ten) put up gaudy passing numbers — 450 yards between Lunt and backup Reilly O’Toole. But it was the defense’s inability to stop big plays that sank the Illini.
Purdue (3-3, 1-1) scored on an 80-yard touchdown pass and runs of 54 and 44 yards.
“We can’t give up the big play and we couldn’t stop the run today, for weeks in a row. It’s very frustrating,” Illinois linebacker Mason Monheim said.
Purdue quarterback Austin Appleby’s 62-yard run midway through the third quarter was typical.
Appleby said the play was by design but the sophomore was stunned the hole in front of him didn’t snap shut after 4 or 5 yards.
“That’s all I was really expecting to get. When I broke the first tackle I was kind of like, ‘Oh, wow, here we go,'” he said.
Appleby was making his first start and finished an efficient 15-of-20 passing for 202 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for 76 yards on seven carries and two more touchdowns, one of them a 1-yarder right after his big sprint that gave Purdue a 31-21 lead.
Running back Akeem Hunt carried the ball 30 times for a career-best 177 yards and a touchdown.
The loss stunned an Illinois team that came into the game looking for a fourth win that would keep them on track for a potential bowl appearance.
“We’re not stopping the run — you have to stop the run. We’re not scoring points in the red zone, we were 4 for 8 in the red zone. And we’re not kicking field goals when we need to,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said, referring to a 30-yard try by David Reisner that was blocked midway through the fourth quarter.
A week after missing the Nebraska game with a knee injury, Lunt left the game after a big sack by Ryan Wilson. But the redshirt sophomore said he aggravated a calf injury initially suffered three weeks earlier against Washington. He wasn’t sure yet how it will affect him.
Lunt led Illinois with 332 yards passing and two touchdowns.
The 80-yard touchdown pass from Appleby to receiver Danny Anthrop capped a jarring momentum swing early in the third quarter that turned the game for Purdue.
Trailing 17-14, Illinois moved deep into Boilermakers territory on a flea-flicker from Lunt to Mike Dudek. The freshman receiver wrestled the ball away from two defenders as he came down to set Illinois up at the Purdue 12.
Dudek finished with eight catches for 200 yards.
But on the next play Lunt threw the ball to Josh Ferguson in the left flat and the back dropped the ball but was behind Lunt. Initially ruled an incomplete pass, officials decided after a review Ferguson fumbled and Purdue had recovered.
On the next play, Appleby found Anthrop. Illini safety Zane Petty lunged for the ball, missed and fell as Anthrop glided up the right sideline for a touchdown. It was one of a number of missed tackles by Illinois, a season-long problem.
“You see something, you think you get it corrected and it shows its head again,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said.
Purdue entered the game with one of the Big Ten’s least-effective offenses. The Boilermakers were averaging 23.8 points and a conference-worst 312 yards a game. They were 13 yards short of topping that yardage mark by halftime.
“(The holes) were big,” Hunt said. “The offensive line really stepped up today.”
Appleby said he knew most of the week that he would start after getting most of the practice reps.
“There wasn’t an ounce of anxiety, there wasn’t an ounce of doubt,” he said.
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