CHAMPAIGN | Ralph Bolden and his Purdue teammates have been through a lot, but they're one win from bowl eligibility following a 20-17 victory at Illinois Saturday.
Bolden has overcome three knee surgeries, including two during his days at Purdue. His 63-yard run set up the Boilermakers' final touchdown and allowed Purdue to remain in the hunt for a second consecutive bowl trip after a five-game Big Ten losing streak earlier in the season.
With their first back-to-back Big Ten road wins since 2009, the Boilermakers (5-6, 2-5 Big Ten) stayed alive in their chase for postseason play. If Purdue can beat Indiana at home next Saturday, it will be the team's first three-game winning streak in one season since 2007.
"We kind of figured it would come down to this at the end of the season, and everybody started picking it up," Bolden said. "It's satisfying seeing that we have to go through IU to get where we want to go."
Purdue took a 13-3 lead in the third quarter when running back Akeem Hunt turned a screen pass into a 63-yard touchdown. Quarterback Robert Marve rolled to his right, then threw back to Hunt on the left. Hunt sped down the sideline untouched.
Illinois (2-9, 0-7) pulled within 13-10 on a 16-yard touchdown run by Dami Ayoola, but Bolden's big play on the following possession set up Akeem Shavers' 6-yard touchdown scamper for a 20-10 Purdue lead.
A hamstring injury on the long run likely kept Bolden out of the end zone.
"I was able to kick it out and turn it up before I felt my hamstring hurting, so I just decided to hobble so I could get as much as I could," Bolden said. "I've had a lot of injuries worse than this, so this isn't going to hold me up."
Shavers rushed for 99 yards and Bolden had 93. Marve threw for 173 yards.
"We gave the game ball to Ralph Bolden," Purdue coach Danny Hope said. "He had a great run there, and he had one leg left and was giving all that he had."
The Boilermakers didn't commit a turnover in winning at Illinois for the first time since 2006. Purdue finished with 398 total yards, thanks to those big plays by Hunt and Bolden.
"Really, they had two big plays, and it was two things we hadn't seen as much," Illinois defensive end Michael Buchanan said.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase scored on a 2-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 20-17, but Illinois remained the only Big Ten team without a conference win. The Illini have a 13-game conference losing streak.
The Illini also carry an eight-game losing streak overall, and Illinois also failed to win on senior day for the first time since 2007.
"That's what we were hoping to do, to give this senior class an opportunity to be a winner," first-year Illinois coach Tim Beckman said.
Ayoola's score was the first by the Illini offense in roughly eight quarters. His touchdown came one play after Scheelhaase connected with Darius Millines on a 22-yard pass on third and 14.
Illinois started the day ranked last in the Big Ten in total offense, scoring offense and rushing offense, and the Illini didn't get much done until late in the game. Scheelhaase completed 22 passes for 160 yards and rushed for 76 yards to lead Illinois.
The Illini were already going with some unconventional thinking, using co-coordinator Chris Beatty to call plays on first and second down before colleague Billy Gonzales handled the duties on third down. Illinois also used defensive tackle Akeem Spence as an extra blocking back.
Illinois compiled 24 first downs compared to Purdue's 18, but the Illini lost three turnovers.
"We turned the ball over too much again," Beckman said. "You can't turn the ball over and win. I've stated that since day one."
Purdue took a 6-3 halftime lead on field goals of 31 and 29 yards from Sam McCartney. The Illini's only scoring in the half came on a 54-yard field goal, the third-longest in school history, by Taylor Zalewski.