CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Rutgers snapped a 16-game Big Ten losing streak against Illinois over the weekend.
Wide receiver Ricky Smalling and tight end Louis Dorsey aren't to blame.
In the 35-24 home loss, both players— who are also roommates — scored their first career touchdowns and were rare bright spots for the Illini. Smalling had a career-high five receptions for 111 yards, including a 30-yard TD grab in the fourth quarter. He became just the sixth player in program history to have a 100-yard receiving game as a true freshman.
Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee wasn't surprised by Smalling's big game.
"(He has) extreme confidence, and that's something we don't have a lot of," McGee said. "We have a lot of guys that are very talented, but just true, core confidence they don't have. Ricky has that."
McGee said Smalling has often approached him during games demanding to have the ball thrown his way. He said he actually appreciates having a player who welcomes the opportunity to make plays.
Dorsey finished with three catches for 28 yards, but he scored on Illinois' last drive of the game on a nine-yard strike from quarterback Jeff George Jr.
"(The touchdown) felt pretty good," Dorsey said. "But at the same time we were losing."
Illinois (2-4, 0-3 Big Ten) has now lost six consecutive Big Ten games and four games overall. The Illini play Saturday at Minnesota (3-3, 0-3).
Even after switching starting quarterbacks, the offense has continued to struggle. The Illini are ranked second to last in the Big Ten in total yards and are averaging a conference-worst 18.8 points per game.
George threw for a career-high 308 yards against Rutgers, but two more picks gave him 12 interceptions in just eight career games.
George said he has been working on correcting the mistakes, but he still isn't afraid to air it out to Smalling or Dorsey even if a defender is nearby.
"I'm going to try to put the ball right where it needs to be and I got confidence in them to go up and make a play for me," George said.
Coach Lovie Smith said there are still a few things to build on before the Illini visit the Golden Gophers. He noted that Illinois leads the nation in forced fumbles after causing three against the Scarlet Knights.
And the offense has shown signs of improvement. In George's two starts after taking over from Chayce Crouch, Illinois has averaged 420 yards. Through the first four games it was just 267.3 yards.
Dorsey has benefited from having George under center. Against Iowa he had a career-high 75 yards and against Rutgers he had a career-high three receptions in route to his first touchdown.
He leads all tight ends on the team with 11 catches and 189 yards so far this season and expects that trend to continue against Minnesota.
"I feel like can't nobody guard me," Dorsey said.