BY CHAD DARE
Even on just one leg, Purdue senior running back Ralph Bolden was able to do something that no Illinois player could do on Saturday.
Bolden’s 63-yard run in the third quarter was one of two big plays for the Boilermakers in their 20-17 win over the Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium.
With the victory, Bolden and his teammates keep their postseason hopes alive as Purdue improves to 5-6 overall and 2-5 in the Big Ten Conference heading into the season-finale against the Indiana Hoosiers.
“We kind of figured it would come down to this at the end of the season, and everybody started picking it up,” Bolden said. “It’s satisfying seeing that we have to go through IU to get where we want to go.”
And while the Boilermakers have hope after winning back-to-back road games for the first time since 2009, the attitude on the other side was utter disappointment.
Illinois (2-9, 0-7) have lost eight straight and 13 consecutive Big Ten Conference games. Additionally, the Illini have lost their fifth straight senior day home finale.
“It kind of hurts to not be able to win my last game as an Illini at home,’’ Illinois senior Michael Buchanan said.
And it wasn’t like the Illini didn’t have their chances, but ultimately the Boilermakers made the most of their opportunities.
“We had chances to succeed and we were unable to succeed,’’ Beckman said. “We turned the ball over too much again. We didn’t capitalize on big plays — they capitalized on a couple big plays. That was the difference in the football game.’’
While the three first-half turnovers were costly for Illinois, the lack of a big play proved to be a back breaker.
Bolden, who has suffered through a multitude of knee injuries, probably would have scored on his 63-yard run if he didn’t appear to injure his hamstring. Instead Purdue took a 20-10 lead, two plays later on a 6-yard run by Akeem Shavers.
“I was able to kick it out and turn it up before I felt my hamstring hurting, so I just decided to hobble so I could get as much as I could,” Bolden said. “I’ve had a lot of injuries worse than this, so this isn’t going to hold me up.”
What made Bolden’s run so costly to Illinois was that it came one offensive play after the Illini had pulled within 13-10 on a 16-yard run by freshman Dani Ayoola.
“That was definitely a back breaker, it really hurt us,’’ Buchanan said. “The defense prides itself on getting the ball back to the offense, and we did a good job of that today until that drive.
“Defense has to take the blame. That’s where we needed to get a stop.’’
But, Scheelhaase said that run by Bolden and a 63-yard touchdown pass from Robert Marve to Akeem Hunt earlier in the third quarter shows the value of big plays.
“You saw our defense played as well as they did all year,’’ Scheelhaase said. “Purdue makes two big plays and we needed to be able to counter that with our own big plays.
“Even if you have a day where you are not consistently moving the ball, just one or two big plays can make a difference.’’
The Illini didn’t have a single play go for more than 25 yards on Saturday and they had 333 yards of total offense on 77 plays. The Boilermakers, who had two plays of 63 yards, had 398 yards on 63 plays.
And that’s a big reason why Illinois had scored just nine points (three field goals) in 144 minutes and 58 seconds of game action at Memorial Stadium between a Scheelhaase touchdown run against Indiana and Ayoola’s run in the third quarter. All three of those games resulted in losses to Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue.
“I think its different things,’’ Scheelhaase said. “There is so little margin for error, because we’re not making big plays. We are not getting long touchdowns.’’
Both of the Illini touchdown drives on Saturday were at least 10 plays and they covered 69 and 95 yards respectively.
“When you are running that many plays on a scoring drive, you have to be perfect,’’ said Scheelhaase, who was 22-of-38 for 160 yards. “You can’t have any mental mistakes — no dropped balls and no missed passes.’’
One bright spot for Illinois on Saturday was the 54-yard field goal by Taylor Zalewski in the first half.
It was the third longest field goal in Illini history.
But Purdue held a 6-3 halftime lead on a pair of Sam McCartney field goals from 31 and 29 yards respectively.
The latter came after the third Illinois turnover in the first half.
“We turned the ball over too much again,” Beckman said. “You can’t turn the ball over and win. I’ve stated that since day one.”
Both Illinois and Purdue conclude regular-season play next Saturday. The Fighting Illini travel to Evanston to play the Northwestern Wildcats, while the Boilermakers return to Ross-Ade Stadium to face the Indiana Hoosiers.