Illinois did exactly what it was expected to do in Champaign on Saturday.

Lovie Smith’s Fighting Illini allowed Big Ten bottom-feeder Rutgers to stay in the game for a half, but they ramped up the energy in the second half and earned another victory to get them one step closer to the postseason.

The Illini won their third straight conference game for the first time since 2007 with their 38-10 victory over the Scarlet Knight to move past .500 and get to 5-4 overall and 3-3 in league play. The Illini need one win over their final three games to earn a bowl invite for the first time since 2014.

Illinois jumped out to a 10-0 lead before the offense was rendered ineffective and Rutgers was able to head into halftime with the score tied at 10. But the Illini scored four touchdowns in less than 10 minutes in the second half to grab control of the game. It was the defense that keyed the onslaught, and the team received a couple of big plays from quarterback Brandon Peters in the W.

Smith’s crew forced three takeaways and scored 21 points off of the turnovers, a run that featured Nate Hobbs returning an Isaiah Gay forced fumble for a 36-yard touchdown and Dele Harding returning an interception for a 54-yard score.

“Defensively, we need to take the ball away,” Smith said. “That’s a part of our DNA. We rely on that. That is what we expect to do.”

The Illini were able to play a slew of backups for most of the fourth quarter as they now have a .500 or better Big Ten record in November for the first time since 2010.

Smith and his staff are finally seeing the kind of Illinois team it envisioned when they started to build this program. There is still so much room to grow and much to accomplish both this season and the ones that follow, but we’re starting to see a more consistent group each week.

We have seen a big-time upset over Wisconsin, business taken care of on the road against Purdue and a stomping of a cellar-dweller in Rutgers at home. It’s a team that now knows how to finish games and is getting used to winning. And the defense, led by star senior middle linebacker Dele Harding, forced turnovers and played very well on Saturday. That’s a Lovie Smith football team.

“As far back as I remember, (defensive takeaways) have been a base part of football for me,” Smith said. “I’ll say it goes back to Jim Norman, my high school coach, John Cooper, Larry Marmie, all the way down the line…Tony Dungy. All of those guys stressed it as much as we do now.”

Up next for the Illini is a trip to Michigan State, which enjoyed an off week. Mark Dantonio’s squad has struggled this season and will head into the game 4-4 and 2-3 in the Big Ten. These teams haven’t played a ton over recent years, with the Illini making their first visit to East Lansing since 2010. They have met just twice overall since.

In the past, this matchup wouldn’t look good for the Illini on paper. Now? This is a winnable game for Smith’s bunch.

In the preseason it was reasonable to assume that the Illini could have a chance to go bowling with a win in their regular-season finale at home against Northwestern. But there’s a real opportunity for them to compete with the Spartans on Saturday and perhaps clinch eligibility even sooner.

“We’re talking about playoff football,” Smith said of his team’s mindset. “Playoff football is you win and advance. We’ve been in that mode for awhile.”

Smith’s NFL pedigree is certainly starting to pay off for the Illini as they get ready for a closing stretch that could be really exciting for their fan base and entire program.