WEST LAFAYETTE — A true freshman running back, a veteran kicker and a stingy defense gave Illinois a chance to earn its second Big Ten win of the season. But in the end, Purdue did just enough Saturday to squeeze out a 13-9 victory at Ross-Ade Stadium.
Trailing 9-6, backup quarterback Aidan O'Connell led the Boilermakers on a 10-play, 94-yard drive to take a 13-9 lead at the 5:44 mark of the fourth quarter. The possession was capped off by a 14-yard catch by wide receiver TJ Sheffield, who front flipped into the end zone.
The Illini had one final drive to win the game and drove the ball down to Purdue's 19-yard line, but they were unable to score a touchdown. Quarterback Brandon Peters threw three straight incomplete passes to turn the ball over on downs, and Illinois was handed its fourth consecutive loss.
It was also the second consecutive week in which the Illini squandered an early fourth-quarter lead.
"Frustrating, I get it," first-year Illinois coach Bret Bielema said. "I tell these guys they gotta keep chipping away. I think the part that amazes me every time is just how resilient they are. The lessons they're learning I know they're very frustrating, especially the fans, the parents, the families, the administrators, the university, I know it gets very frustrating, but I can tell you that we continue to make strides. This process is not going to be an easy one, but it's gonna be one that's gonna be worth it."
Josh McCray, the first true freshman to start at running back for the Illini since 2017, totaled 24 carries for a career-high 156 yards. He rarely went down on first contact, and his tough running helped sixth-year kicker James McCourt have one of his most productive games of the year.
The super senior made 51- and 35-yard field goals in the second and third quarters, respectively, to tie the game at 6. He gave Illinois a 9-6 lead on a 45-yarder early in the fourth quarter before Purdue made its late rally.
Facing 4th-and-2 from the Boilermakers' 34-yard line at the 9:33 mark of the fourth quarter, the Illini could've either attempted a 51-yard field goal to go ahead 12-6 or went for it on fourth-and-2 to keep possession.
Bielema elected to punt and rely on his defense, which had two second-half interceptions by safety Kerby Joseph and cornerback Tony Adams Jr., but it couldn't keep Purdue out of the end zone.
"We had just a missed (a 54-yard field goal attempt) and the ball was really in the same position," Bielema said. " ... We were going the opposite direction and (the wind) was whirling around. ... I wasn't going to go 4th-and-2 and if we didn't convert, turn the ball over and give it to them at the (34-yard line) with huge momentum down by three.
" ... It's the decision I would make a hundred times over."
Outside of McCray, Illinois' offense was scarce, especially through the air. Peters struggled for the second straight week, passing 14-of-26 for 100 yards.
"Off the top of my head, just finishing the drives," center Doug Kramer Jr. said when asked about how the Illini's offense can improve. "The defense played extremely well. They got turnovers, they got us in good field position. We just need to finish those drives."