After Iowa and Minnesota also won Saturday, Illinois, Purdue, the Hawkeyes and Gophers are all 4-3 atop the division.
O’Connell and Purdue coach Jeff Brohm each played down the implications of the win, but recognized what it meant as the Boilermakers clinched a bowl appearance for the fourth time in six years.
“We’re not blind to those things,” O’Connell said. “We know we’re bowl eligible, we know we’re still in the hunt (in the division). I think the one game at a time thing is more so for us to stay focused, for energy and to realize it means nothing if you don’t win the next game.”
Purdue scored on three straight drives to take a 28-21 lead on Durham’s 13-yard touchdown reception with 13:13 left, finishing a drive that was aided by three Illinois penalties.
“I kind of ran around in the back of the end zone, Aidan had to scramble a little bit and it seemed like we just kind of made eye contact,” Durham said. “I think I looked up, telling him to throw it up. He trusted me, he threw a beautiful ball and I just went up there and grabbed it for him.”
The Boilermakers gave O’Connell plenty of time and excellent protection all day, holding a highly rated Illinois defense zero sacks.
O’Connell completed 25 of 40 attempts and threw one interception. Devin Mockobee added 106 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries.
DeVito struggled against pressure and threw his first interception since a Sept. 10 win over Virginia. He completed 18 of 32 passes for 201 yards and a score.
“When we can’t follow through on doing the fundamentals of that philosophy, complimentary football, efficient on early downs, take advantage of manageable clock situations, all of those things, if we don’t do that, we’re going to have failure,” Illinois coach Bret Bielema said. “That’s what we’ve seen the last two weeks.”
Purdue also became the first team to hold Illinois star Chase Brown to fewer than 100 rushing yards this season. The nation’s leader in yards rushing also appeared to suffer a leg injury late in the game, when he had to be helped off the field. He finished with 98 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries.
“We were just going out and playing fast, and we knew we had to stop the run,” Purdue defensive end Khordae Sydnor said. “We knew we had to limit four-plus, five-yard gains on first down and I think we executed well today.”
Durham made his first touchdown grab to cap a 90-yard drive that put the Boilermakers up 21-14 midway through the third quarter, but Illinois answered as DeVito connected with Brian Hightower for a 6-yard score with 1:13 left in the quarter.
“We’ve gone through adversity and had two losses the last two weeks where we didn’t look really good and teams kind of after us,” Brohm said. “But that’s college football.”
Emotions flared throughout the game as both teams combined for 18 penalties, including several calls for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Illinois was whistled for 12 penalties to the tune of 121 yards, which aided in multiple Purdue scoring drives.
“When you’ve got two passionate teams with everything on the line, i think you’re going to get some of that,” Purdue defensive tackle Branson Deen said.
The Boilermakers were flagged six times for 80 yards.
Purdue: The Boilermakers came into Champaign on a two-game losing streak. Credit the effort in the trenches — the Boilermakers never gave up a sack and paved the way for Mockobee to clear 100 yards against one of the country’s top defenses.
Illinois: Back-to-back home losses have tempered the enthusiasm of a 7-1 start, and things don’t get any easier next week at No. 3 Michigan. The Illini are a victory away from their first eight-win season since 2007 and still have chance to get to the Big Ten title game for the first time. Illinois holds the tie-breaker over Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The Illini could find themselves left out of the AP Top 25 after breaking into the rankings in early October for the first time since 2011.
Purdue: Hosts struggling Northwestern next Saturday.
Illinois: A trip to No. 3 Michigan looms next Saturday.