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Backup shines after Lunt injury, but Illini fall to Purdue

CHAMPAIGN—Things can change quickly in the fall.

What began as a sun-kissed Saturday in which Illinois, a nine-point favorite, seemed poised to give Lovie Smith his first FBS victory ended as a heart-breaker in the autumn shadows at Memorial Stadium.

The Illini lost starting quarterback Wes Lunt to a second-quarter injury. And then, despite an inspired performance by backup Chayce Crouch, they lost to Purdue 34-31 in overtime before an announced crowd of 42,912.

“Every loss hurts,’’ Smith said, “but some hurt more than others. And this is one that hurts a little bit more. We had opportunities at the end, but we did things that didn’t allow us to win.’’

Most dramatically, Chase McLaughlin, who had already made three field goals, missed a potential game-winner, hitting the right upright from 41 yard at the end of regulation.

In overtime, Crouch lost a fumble on Illinois’ first possession, enabling the Boilermakers (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) to pull out a much-needed victory for their under-fire coach Darrell Hazell.

“I’m so proud of our football team,’’ Hazell said after Purdue won despite giving up 499 yards while gaining 459. “They showed so much grit and determination.’’

Lunt left midway through the second quarter after taking a shot from Purdue linebacker Danny Ezechukwu, who was given a 15-yard penalty for roughing the passer.

No update on Lunt’s status was given, but he did watch portions of the second half from the sideline. Starting cornerback Darius Mosely and backup cornerback Cameron Watkins also left with injuries.

“They will all be back and ready to go when we get the OK,’’ Smith said, adding that he’ll have an injury update on Monday.

The overtime loss spoiled the encouraging relief work of Crouch. The hard-running 6-4, 225-pound sophomore, who brings a Tim Tebow-like dimension, completed 10 of 14 for 142 yards and ran for 137 yards and two touchdowns.

“I got hit and had poor ball security and fumbled the ball,’’ Crouch said glumly. “I don’t feel well about how I played. We lost the game. Any time you lose you can play better.’’

After trailing 21-16, Illinois (1-4, 0-2) took a 31-24 lead early in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t finish.

“Right now, we’re not a good football team,’’ Smith said. “We need to keep working to become a good football team. We’re facing reality right now.’’

The Illini were whistled for 12 penalties for 125 yards, while Purdue had five penalties for 45 yards in the chippy contest.

“We have to be more disciplined than that,’’ said Smith, intent on getting back to the practice field to iron out “all the things we’ve been working on, but we haven’t worked on them enough. That’s the answer to anything that’s going wrong. You need to keep working. We have a plan. We need to work that plan better.’’

Having muffed what shaped up as their best chance to win a Big Ten game, the Illini now turn to what looks like their second-best chance: Saturday’s trip to Rutgers.

“We feel crushed right now,’’ said middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, who had two interceptions. “We had many opportunities to win. We’re just [going] to keep grinding. There were so many little things we could have done better. We have to be more disciplined. Every guy has to own it and do their job.’’

The determination outweighs the frustration, Crouch said: We’re going to go into Rutgers with a great mindset.’’

Follow me on Twitter @HerbGould and at TMGcollegesports.com

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