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Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette Illinois linebacker Dele Harding (9) grabs an interception in the second half ofn an NCAA football game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019. Illinois defensive back Sydney Brown (30).Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette Illinois linebacker Dele Harding (9) grabs an interception in the second half ofn an NCAA football game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019. Illinois defensive back Sydney Brown (30).

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CHAMPAIGN — One more.

Win that is.

Illinois moved closer to bowl eligibility with a competitive-for-a-half 38-10 victory Saturday afternoon against Rutgers in front of 35,562 fans at Memorial Stadium.

The fifth win is the most since 2015. With three games to go.

Now, the Illini can talk about a possible bowl. And so will fourth-year coach Lovie Smith, who is striving to coach in his first one since arriving at Illinois prior to the 2016 season.

“Absolutely, it’s OK,” Smith said. “It’s always about the next game. If we win the next football game, we’re bowl eligible.”

Smith started the bowl talk with his team during the postgame locker-room celebration.

“We’re embracing it,” Smith said.

Three weeks ago, Illinois was 2-4. No bowl talk then. Outside the team, “doubt” led “belief” by a wide margin.

Not anymore.

“We hadn’t played our best ball,” Smith said. “We needed to get on a roll and get some momentum going. And that’s what we did. It seems like each week something new comes along.”

The players thought they were getting better. Saturday’s win that showcased a dominating second half added confirmation.

“We’re in a great position,” Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters said. “With three games left, it’s a big possibility for us to go to a bowl game. I think everyone’s excited and motivated to get to that point.”

When Peters transferred from Michigan before the season, he thought a bowl bid was possible.

“For sure,” he said. “I believed in every guy on this team from the very beginning.”

Senior running back Dre Brown is on the verge of his first postseason game. He arrived in 2015, just after the Illini played in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

“We haven’t been in bowl talk in such a long time,” Brown said. “The fact that we got to put ourselves in position after losing four games, a lot of people wrote us off, saying we’ll probably be 2-10. But to be 5-4 with three games remaining, it’s not where we want to be, but I’m glad we got there.”

At Friday’s Quarterback Club luncheon, Brown told the crowd they were going to enjoy next two months.

“I don’t plan on losing the rest of the games,” Brown said. “You want to win each game. But the bowl game, that’s the goal right now. Six wins will take us. Obviously, we don’t want to settle there.

“The fact we put ourselves in that spot, we’re excited for the future.”

The “one game at a time” mantra is working for the Illini.

“If we’re 1-0 for these last three games, then we know we’re bowl eligible,” cornerback Nate Hobbs said. “That will take care of itself if we go 1-0 each week.”

Work to do

Bowl eligibility is not guaranteed for the Illini. But it seems extremely likely.

Next up is Michigan State, which entered the season with great hopes and is 4-4. After an open week, the Illini travel to Iowa on Nov. 23. Wonder if the Hawkeyes’ 63-0 romp against Illinois last season might come up?

And the finale on Nov. 30 is against Northwestern, which is having its worst season in years.

The three-game run by the Illini makes you think a six-game win streak is possible. Or even seven with the bowl game. Crazy to consider where the program was before Wisconsin visited three weeks ago, but that’s the reality now.

“We were all saying we were getting better, we’re close,” Smith said. “If you feel like you’re doing things the right way and you keep working hard, normally it changes. And that’s what happened with our program.

“We believed we were going to win (Saturday).”

He wants more.

“I think everyone would say we’re headed in the right direction,” Smith said “We haven’t accomplished anything. There’s just so much more we have to do.”

He breaks the season into three-game segments.

“We had a great third quarter,” Smith said. “It’s always about the fourth quarter. All we’ve done is put ourself in position to have an outstanding fourth quarter. We can’t wait.”

Slow start

Riding a two-game winning streak, including an upset against Wisconsin, Illinois entered Saturday’s game as 21-point favorites.

But the Scarlet Knights were tied 10-10 at intermission.

The Illinois players weren’t happy about it.

“It was like, ‘What are we doing?’” Brown said. “‘Let’s go win the game.’ We came out with a fire in the second half. The defense made a ton of plays and offense did our job as well.”

Smith saw a disappointed team at halftime.

“That’s a good thing, too,” Smith said. “Defensively, we had missed some plays. Offensively, we hadn’t been able to get our run going.

“There was disappointment. But there was also a lot of energy heading into the second half.”

The Illini took the lead back with 9:08 left in the third quarter. Peters did the bulk of the work on the lead drive, racing 54 yards to the Rutgers 2.

He got tripped up just short of the end zone.

“I was pretty upset I didn’t get in,” Peters said. “But it was a spark that we needed.

“I’ve never had that much room to work with before. I kept looking back, making sure no one was hawking me down. It’s nice to know I can be that part of the offense.”

Was it a career long?

“Yes it was,” Peters said, “For sure.”

Brown followed with a touchdown run, taking direct snap and zipping the final 2 yards for a 17-10 lead.

Peters didn’t mind.

“I was pretty gassed,” Peters said. “I’m not going to lie to you.”

The Illinois defense added to the lead with 7:29 left in the third quarter when Hobbs grabbed Johnny Langan’s fumble in the air and sprinted 36 yards for a touchdown and a 24-10 lead,

Good timing for Hobbs, who played in front of his cousin, former Illini Marc Jackson, who attended the game.

From there, the rout was on. And with it, the ensuing bowl chatter the Illini will hear about all week.

A far cry from the national media putting Smith on the hottest of seats — which is now frozen, I guess — before the win against Wisconsin.

“We like where we are right now,” Smith said. “It’s fun winning and seeing some of the fruits of our labor.”

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).

College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).