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Big 10 Latest: Illinois, Indiana

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Big 10 Latest: Illinois, Indiana

The Big Ten got going this weekend with Illinois playing Purdue and Indiana facing off against Wisconsin.

Despite the turmoil in their leadership somewhat, IU played some solid rugby and shut out Wisconsin 65-0. The Badgers worked hard and it's early days for them, but this was a very good start for Indiana.

Meanwhile, Purdue put a bit of a scare into Illinois. Illinois started strong and with 25 minutes to go it was 21-7 Illini.

But Purdue made some adjustments, and against a stiff breeze scored twice to make it 21-17. The Boilermakers had a shot to win it, too, as they put Illinois under pressure at the end of the game. They looked for all money set to score, but a handling error turned the ball over and that was the game.

"We got a bit lucky," said Illinois Head Coach Joey Erasmus. "They had the momentum."

True to Midwest norms, a stiff, sustained 15mph wind looked ready to wreak havoc on events.

Purdue won the coin toss and elected to play with the wind in the first half. The Boilermakers looked to use their advantage early and often, putting kick after kick deep into the Illinois half. Early on, the Purdue kick chase isolated Illinois’s back three and created dangerous transition attack opportunities from turnovers. The Illini defense scrambled well to recover and relieve the pressure.

Illinois struck back with sustained possession. True to old ways, the Illini methodically advanced the ball three to four meters at a time. Handling errors did little to slow momentum for the men in Orange & Blue. Possession and scrum pressure gave Illinois two early overlaps on the left edge. On both occasions the final pass did not go to hands and the score remained locked at 0-0.

The breakthrough finally came in the 13th minute. Illinois turned over a Purdue scrum 20 out from the line. Five phases later, Junior Centre, Brandon Hamilton, found a gap. He was taken down a step from the try zone but Purdue failed to cover the narrow channels. Junior Hooker, Payton Thompson, picked and rumbled over for a meat pie. Fifth-Year fullback Brennan Vaught converted to give the Illini a 7-0 advantage.

Purdue went deep on the ensuing kickoff. An ill-advised, poorly executed Illinois offload gifted the Boilermakers possession and a prime scoring opportunity. Under pressure, the Illini conceded an offsides penalty. Two phases from the tap, Purdue crashed over and erased the Illinois lead.

The remainder of the first half was an arm wrestle for momentum. Neither side seemed to keep the upper hand for long. Purdue received a prime opportunity to take control in the match when junior No. 8 Calum Doyle was assessed a yellow card in the 34th minute for repeated team infringements. But Illinois showed a brave defensive effort and saw out the remainder of the half. Given Purdue’s significant wind advantage in the first half, Illinois was content to take a 7-7 tie into the break.

Illinois continued to apply pressure with intense defense at the start of the second half. In the 44th minute, a Purdue pass got caught in the wind and floated up for blitzing sophomore wing Daniel Kang. Kang intercepted the pass cleanly and had an unimpeded 30-meter dash to the tryline. Vaught converted and Illinois led 14-7. The conversion kick ran out the clock on Doyle’s sin bin and Illinois returned to full strength.

Purdue’s kickoff found touch on the full. From the midfield scrum reset, Illinois launched deep into Boilermaker territory. The men in Black & Gold put in a stout defensive effort; thrice repelling Illinois on their try line and relieving pressure. Purdue finally buckled after nine minutes under the pump when Vaught put away junior wing, DJ Griffin, on the edge. Vaught converted the sideline kick and Illinois was riding high with a 21-7 advantage.

Illinois looked poised to blow the game wide open with 27 minutes to play. Purdue was against the run of play and the wind. The Boilermakers caught a break when an overcooked Illinois box kick trickled over the dead ball line. Purdue were awarded a scrum on halfway where the ball was kicked. The restart was timed with the 20-minute water break and Purdue came out looking refreshed and composed. 

The first promising signs for Purdue came in the scrum. Replacement props turned it from a liability to a stable platform. Without having to scramble to maintain continuity, Purdue was able to build pressure through sustained possession. Eventually, Illinois’ discipline broke down. Senior flyhalf Cody Waldecker buried his kick for touch in the corner and from the lineout the Boilermakers looked to maul. While the Illini denied the shove, hooker Eli Jennings, spotted a gap around the edge and exploited it for five points. The conversion was away to the left. Illinois held a nine-point lead with 14 minutes to play.

Purdue’s bench provided a big lift in the final quarter. In the 74th minute, Flanker Alex Vecchioni capped off an 11-phase, three-minute possession with Purdue’s third try. Another wayward kick left the Boilermakers four points adrift entering the final stages of the game. They would receive the kick in their half and have to go 80 meters to steal the game.

An excellent tackle by Griffin for Illinoi took possession away from the trailing Boilermakers. A penalty and yellow card off the ensuing scrum made Purdue’s task an extra bit harder. Illinois worked the ball within inches of the line in search of a bonus point try. Purdue held out and eventually isolated an Illinois ball carrier. Support was too late, the referee blew his whistle, and Purdue had one last chance to go for the win.

Illinois conceded two quick penalties. Both times, Purdue tapped and gained a quick 40 meters. The clock went red. Three minutes of uninterrupted possession ticked by and both sidelines held their breath. The tension finally broke when a pass was knocked-on on the 16th phase of possession. The ref blew for full-time and Purdue were left 20 meters short of pulling off the comeback. Illinois narrowly escaped with a 21-17 victory.

Purdue took the loss but will be thinking they are right there in the midst of the Big Ten competition. Illinois know they perhaps escaped this one.

Next weekend, Illinois will host a Wisconsin team looking to bounce back from a tough loss to Indiana. Purdue will be on the road against Notre Dame and then Michigan State a week later.