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IU football earns first conference win, preserves bowl hopes with 24-14 victory at Illinois


Senior defensive backs Rashard Fant and Tony Fields break up a Michigan pass on Oct. 14 at Memorial Stadium. Fant recorded his first interception of the season Saturday in a 24-14 IU win at Illinois. Bobby Goddin Buy Photos

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Rashard Fant couldn't hold on to the football.

The fifth-year senior cornerback dropped interception opportunities in the first and fourth quarter Saturday afternoon against Illinois, before nearly fumbling the ball away late in the game during a punt return.

IU Coach Tom Allen took notice of this and ordered Fant to change out his gloves. It made all the difference.

After the glove change, Fant finally came away with an interception, his first of the season, to help IU, 4-6 overall and 1-6 in the Big Ten, close out a 24-14 victory against Illinois.

"It really had nothing to do with the gloves," Fant said.

It had been a quiet season for Fant before Saturday's contest with the Fighting Illini. He entered the game with only five total pass breakups and no fumble recoveries or interceptions in what has been an injury-riddled season for him.

But in addition to his takeaway, Fant also led all IU players with three pass breakups.  

"I said 'gloves off, new gloves on,'" Allen said. "He got new gloves, and he got himself a pick. So must've worked."

Smothering defense led the way for IU in the win. Illinois (2-7, 0-7) registered just 10 total first downs in the game.

The Hoosiers won the turnover margin 3-1 and posted eight sacks of Fighting Illini sophomore quarterback Jeff George Jr.

Senior linebacker Chris Covington said that while the defense is challenged by Allen each week, the team took to challenging each other during practices last week. 

Specifically, Covington said he challenged senior safety Chase Dutra.

"This was really new for this game. He likes to talk about the stats," Covington said. "I told him I was going to play harder than him. He was all for it."

IU had produced similarly stingy defensive performances earlier this season and lost. The difference Saturday was the ability of the IU offense to capitalize off the defense's play.

Senior quarterback Richard Lagow recovered well in the second quarter after throwing an interception late in the first period. 

The turnover didn't lead to any Illini points, and IU was able to build a 14-0 lead entering halftime after Lagow led drives of 45 and 90 yards to the end zone, with each drive taking less than three minutes to complete.

The former ended with a three-yard rushing touchdown by freshman running back Morgan Ellison, while the latter featured a four-yard touchdown pass from Lagow to senior tight end Ian Thomas.

However, IU's second-half performance exposed the same faults shown in earlier losses this season. The first play from scrimmage in the second half was a 77-yard Illinois touchdown pass.

Then the Hoosiers settled for a 28-yard field goal by senior kicker Griffin Oakes in the third quarter to make it a 17-7 game.

When George connected with sophomore tight end Caleb Reams early in the fourth quarter to make it a 17-14 IU lead, the Hoosiers seemed to be headed down the same path as it did earlier this season against Michigan State and Maryland. Second-half leads for IU in those games turned into losses. 

A late touchdown pass to Cobbs, a fumble recovery by senior linebacker Tegray Scales and interceptions by Fant and Scales ensured Saturday's result would end in IU's favor.

"It just feels great," Allen said. "When you looked at the schedule and knew what you had prior to the season, you knew it was going to be tough."

It was a win the Hoosiers needed to have. IU remains on-course for a bowl berth if it can defeat Rutgers and Purdue during the next two weekends.

For Allen, it was a special moment, as he earned his first Big Ten win as a head coach. 

“The first of whatever it is is always special," Allen said.

It's a win that lasts Allen and the Hoosiers only until next week, when they'll face another must-win scenario to preserve their postseason hopes.

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