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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -
For weeks, Indiana had come up just short.
Falling three points short of the first Hoosiers win over Ohio State since 1988. Losing to Michigan State by four after leading by 17. And dropping a one-point heartbreaker to Navy.
On Saturday, the Hoosiers found a way to win.
Seven sacks from the defense and an efficient two-touchdown game off the bench from freshman quarterback Nate Sudfeld were enough for Indiana to beat mistake-prone Illinois 31-17.
"The defense rallied up, played well on the stretch," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "It was a good effort, the guys have been fighting and it was great to see them come out and fight again. It was good to get one win on the road."
Indiana's bonus was an end to a five-game losing streak this season and an 11-game Big Ten drought that stretched back to October 2010.
The Illini (3-5, 1-3 Big Ten) are trying to end a pair of losing streaks of their own: 11 straight in the conference since beating the Hoosiers last fall, and a five-game skid this season.
First-year coach Tim Beckman was hired to build up a program that's finished 7-6 the past two seasons but has fallen sharply since then.
"You want to be as successful as fast as you possibly can, but right now we're not," Beckman said.
Illinois had eight penalties Saturday for 81 yards. They were led by Donovonn Young's career-high 124 rushing yards.
Sudfeld took over after starting quarterback Cameron Coffman was benched following a first-quarter interception.
Wilson said neither quarterback has much of an edge on the other. The decision to bench Coffman, he said, was based on seeing him make a mistake on the interception, a floater over the middle intended for Wynn that Illinois safety Steve Hull pulled down.
"It was just the dynamics of the day," Wilson said. "They both gotta get better and we gotta keep pushing those two guys."
Sudfeld's second scoring pass, a 17-yarder to Wynn midway through the fourth quarter, put the Hoosiers up 31-17 and finished Illinois.
"Shane was wide open for the pass, I just kind of made sure he caught it and threw it to him," Sudfeld said. "I mean, it was just great play-calling, great execution by the running back to set up that play-action."
Saturday was homecoming for Illinois, but as Memorial Stadium emptied, the Hoosiers did all of the celebrating. The team gathered in the southeast corner of the stadium with a few dozen red-clad fans who likely shared the team's relief in finally getting a win.
Indiana's Big Ten losing streak dated to October 2010, and this season's losing skid included painful near-misses against Ohio State — 52-49 two weeks ago — and Navy. The Hoosiers looked to have last weekend's 31-30 loss to Navy in hand until almost the end.
This week, the defense earned its share of the win.
Indiana entered the game with just 12 sacks in seven games. But on Saturday, Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase scrambled for his own safety. Scheelhaase finished 12 of 27 for 176 yards.
The last sack sealed the win. Down 31-17, Illinois stayed alive with a drive to the Hoosiers 4 with just over 2 minutes to play. On first down, defensive end Ryan Phillis punched through the Illinois line and put Scheelhaase on his back for an 11-yard loss. The Illini came no closer to the end zone and Indiana took over with nothing to do but drain the clock.
Sudfeld wasn't asked to do much more than manage the game. He finished with 107 yards on 10-of-15 passing.
And that efficiency — combined with key Illinois mistakes — pulled the Hoosiers from a 14-7 deficit to a second-quarter lead they never gave up.
Sudfeld credited his offensive line, which gave up three sacks but only one other tackle for a loss.
"They're young, they work really hard and they take coaching really well, and they take pride in protecting us quarterbacks and opening up holes," Sudfeld said. "They're a big force."
Illinois went up 14-7 early in the second on a 5-yard touchdown run by Scheelhaase and were set to stick Indiana with a three-and-out on the next series before Justin Staples was called for a late hit out of bounds on a third-and-3 play at the Hoosier 33. Sudfeld wasted no time, hitting Cody Latimer deep over the middle on the next play for 48 yards and a first-and-goal at the Illinois 6.
Two plays later, Stephen Houston took a screen pass from Sudfeld and dove into the end zone, squeezing just inside the right pylon. With the point after, the Hoosiers tied it at 14.
Indiana soon took its first lead on a pair of tough-to-justify mistakes by Illinois.
The first was return man Tommy Davis' puzzling decision to sprint across the field to try to field a Nick Stoner punt that was angling out of bounds. The diving Davis got a hand on the ball as he went out of bounds, leaving it for Indiana's Greg Heban to recover at the Illinois 22.
Four plays later, Houston breezed around the left end for a touchdown and a 21-14 Indiana lead.
"Give credit to Indiana, because they didn't have the penalties and they didn't turn the football over, and they ended up winning the football game," Beckman said.
Follow David Mercer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidmercerap