PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Rutgers football (1-3, 1-3) fell in a close contest with Illinois (1-3, 1-3), 23-20, on Saturday afternoon at SHI Stadium, presented by Horizon BCBSNJ. Wide receiver Bo Melton produced a career-high 140 receiving yards and two touchdowns, while quarterback Noah Vedral's 259 passing yards also marked a personal best. Running back Isaih Pacheco added his first 100-yard rushing performance of the season with his 134 yards on the ground.
Rutgers went right to work, as Pacheco ripped off a 32-yard run on the Scarlet Knights' second play of the game to get into Illini territory. Facing a fourth-and-three situation four plays later, Vedral took a shot and found a wide open Melton for a 29-yard touchdown to make it 7-0 RU with 13:03 to go in the quarter.
Rutgers produced its first turnover during its second defensive possession, as cornerback Max Melton recovered a fumble forced by Mike Tverdov to give the Scarlet Knights the ball inside Illinois' territory at the 7:52 mark in the quarter. Vedral then found wide receiver Isaiah Washington for a 26-yard gain during the following possession, which set up a 29-yard field goal by kicker Valentino Ambrosio for a 10-0 Rutgers' lead. RU would hold the margin as it headed into the second quarter.
The Fighting Illini scored on its opening procession of the second quarter, as quarterback Isaiah Williams converted a three-yard rush for a 10-7 score with 13:45 left in the half.
Both defenses were strong for the remainder of the half, with Ambrosio's second field goal – this one from 26 yards with 4:19 left before halftime – the only scoring before the break. RU produced a promising drive in its final possession of the half, highlighted by a 15-yard rush by Pacheco, but Illinois would keep the Scarlet Knights off the board as RU held a 13-7 lead at halftime.
Though Illinois was able to get into Rutgers' territory on the first drive of the second half, RU registered an impressive goal-line stand to hold the visitor out of the end zone. The Scarlet Knights stuffed Illinois on three consecutive rushing attempts from the one-yard line and forced the Illini into an illegal formation on fourth down. The effort limited Illinois to just a 24-yard field goal to make it 13-10 with 8:59 left in the quarter.
The Scarlet Knights followed with their biggest offensive play of the game. On third-and-10 from RU's own 34-yard line, Melton split three defenders to haul in a 66-yard touchdown pass from Vedral. His second score of the afternoon – and a career-long reception – put Rutgers up, 20-10, with 7:43 left in the third quarter.
Illinois would close out the quarter with a six-play, 60-yard scoring drive capped by a one-yard rushing score from running back Mike Epstein, as the Scarlet Knights held a 20-17 lead with one more quarter to go.
The Fighting Illini tied the game after a 23-yard field goal from James McCourt made it 20-20 with just over 13 minutes remaining.
The RU defense held strong, as UI was left to attempt back-to-back field goals on consecutive drives. Though, the Fighting Illini failed to take a lead after a 54-yard try and a 46-yard effort both missed the mark. The score remained knotted at 20-20 with 7:20 to go in the game.
However, with three seconds left on the clock, UI's McCourt connected on his fourth attempt of the quarter, hitting a 47-yard field goal to inch in front for the win, 23-30.
Rutgers stays home to host Michigan on Nov. 21 at SHI Stadium in a game presented by RWJBarnabas Health. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. on Big Ten Network.