Know thy Opponent 2009: Illinois Fighting Illini

I am waiting to do a formal wrap of Media Days for either late tonight or early tomorrow, but after seeing some of the other blog coverage I have decided I will be attending next year's event. It's only a short drive to Chicago. Of course, if I win tomorrow night's Powerball I can just hire a lackey to go for me. Wisconsin blogger Adam Hoge at Bucky's Fifth Quarter has a great 1st day wrap up team-by-team. In the mean time, on to the Illinois preview.

It is rare that we have played three non-conference opponents since we last played a conference opponent, but that is the case with each of our next two opponents. We haven't played Illinois or Wisconsin since 2006, but we played Toledo in 2007 and both Oregon and Notre Dame last season. In each case, we are facing a team that will be very unfamiliar to us. Illinois is probably a little more familiar than the Badgers because of quarterback Juice Williams. We did see him and a handful of other guys in 2006, whereas Many of Wisconsin's players were redshirting back then.

Williams is an interesting player. When he is on, the Illini can be one of the best teams in the country. When he is off, the other team often gets the ball in the form of ill-advised passes that turn into interceptions or fumbles. The Illini are quickly entering the realm of Notre Dame and Michigan. They are a team with a superior amount of talent compared to most teams, but that talent grossly underachieves. That sums up Juice Williams in a nutshell, and 2009 is his final chance to impress.

2008 Record: (5-7, 3-5 Big Ten)

Bowl result: No Bowl

Blog Representation: Hail to the Orange

Series with Purdue: Illinois leads 41-37-6

Last Purdue win: 11/11/2006 at Illinois 42-31

Last Illinois win: 10/12/2002 at Illinois 38-31 (OT)

Juice_williams-illinois_qb-sack_medium

Someone should let Juice know Anthony Spencer is there to sack and strip the ball from him. Nah, Anthony will do it himself. This is from the 2006 game and it is seconds before Alex Magee recovers a fumble for a huge game-changing TD.

Last Season for the Illini:

This is our least celebrated trophy rivalry. While we play Notre Dame and Indiana each year, Illinois regularly rotates off the schedule. They are technically the closest Big Ten team to West Lafayette, giving reason for the rivalry. Still, they are not a protected rival like Indiana, as Northwestern is our second protected rival. Purdue has a slight three game lead in the Cannon portion of the series thanks to our recent four game winning streak.

Last year was a raging disappointment after Illinois played in Pasadena. It was probably one of the least deserved BCS bowl bids ever, but Illinois did have an impressive 2007 season. It was the Illini's first bowl bid since 2001. Last year was a return to normal for Illinois. A 5-7 finish against a rough schedule has many once again questioning Ron Zook coaching ability.

Zooooooook_medium

Would Matt Painter do this?

Illinois really wasn't that far off last year. They played Missouri, Penn State, and Ohio State close in three very tough games. With a bowl bid on the line they folded on the road against Northwestern in the season finale, giving the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk to Northwestern for all time.

Illinois probably plays the manliest non-conference schedule outside of our own. They open in a neutral site game against Missouri again. They then have a home opener against Brock Spack's Illinois State team. Illinois had better hope they have a good Big Ten season, as they finish the year with two tough non-conference games at Big East Champ Cincinnati and at home against Fresno State. Our game comes after a trip to Indiana.

Illinois offense:

The 2008 version of the Illinois offense grossly missed Rashard Mendenhall. After running for a school record 1,681 yards in 2007, no one could match his total. Williams led the team with 719 yards and five touchdowns. Daniel Dufrene tried to replace Mendenhall's production, but added only 663 yards and no touchdowns. Jason Ford didn't have many yards, but he led the team with eight touchdowns as a true freshman. He could see more time in the backfield than Dufrene. Williams has long been a serious rushing threat with over 2,000 yards in his career.

The one knock on Williams has been his passing ability. Yardage-wise, he has always been fine. He will likely leave Illinois as it all-time passing yardage leader, but he has been erratic at best. 3,173 yards and 22 touchdowns for 2008 are good. A 57% completion percentage and 16 interceptions are not. Williams has thrown 37 interceptions in 35 career games, so the likelihood of him suddenly cutting down on picks is low. He has actually thrown more interceptions in each successive season so far. The Illini are a better team by far when Williams does not have to throw much.

When he does throw, however, he has perhaps the best receiver in the conference throw to. Arrelious Benn has been almost everything Illinois fans have hoped for the past two seasons. He had 67 catches for 1,055 yards, but only three touchdowns last season. He has just five scores for his career despite impressive numbers elsewhere (sounds like Taylor Stubblefield pre-2004). He has to find the end zone much more often than he has already. Williams has spread his touchdowns around quite a bit. Seven different receivers had at least two scores last season, but no one had more than four. That means there is not one player we can totally focus on in red zone situations. That also makes Williams' rushing ability that much more dangerous.

Illinois must replace its center and left tackle from a line that gave up 25 sacks a year ago. Jon Asamoah at right guard and Jeff Allen at right tackle are both mainstays at 6'5" and 310+ pounds, but the rest of the line is in flux. Eric Block will move from left guard to center. Randall Hunt and Corey Lewis will both be on the left side and each has size at 6'6" and 320+ pounds. We should be able to generate a pass rush, but we have to finish off Williams once we get to him. Of course, to this point we will have faced Chandler Harnish, Jeremiah Masoli, Adam Weber, and Terrelle Pryor. What is one more mobile quarterback?

Illinois Defense:

In CFN's Illinois defensive preview, Pete Fiutak said that Illinois has a tremendous offense and Illinois defense needs to be merely average. I beg to differ. Illinois' offense committed 26 turnovers last year and generated a ton of yards, but not a ton of points. The defense was okay against the pass, but teams ran for more than 150 yards per game against the Illini. It will have to be much better than the merely adequate it was last year. It must also replace linebacker Brit Miller, who led the Illini in virtually every defensive category.

Illinois' defensive line generated 32 sacks, so it could get into the backfield. End Doug Pilcher is the most regular starter that returns, though Josh Brent and Sirod Williams are starters that battled injuries most of the year. Williams and Brent are tackles that should help in run situations. Brent is already on thin ice, however, after an offseason DUI cost him spring practice via suspension. Jerry Brown could also start at the other end position, but his academics are in question.

Martez Wilson is a highly touted recruit that is expected to do even better than Miller and American Hero J Leman at middle linebacker. Wilson played on the outside a year ago and amassed 73 tackles, three sacks, and two fumble recoveries. Illinois has a history of great middle linebackers, and Wilson is expected to be the next one. He'll be joined on the outside by Ian Thomas and Russell Ellington. Both are sophomores with not much experience. Nate Palmer and Justin Staples are both huge linebackers that redshirted last season and could be ready for serious playing time.

Best highlight from our last win over Illinois

The secondary lost a first round pick when the Dolphins drafted cornerback Vontae Davis. He led Illinois in interceptions with just two, but was in on 18 pass break ups. As a whole, Illinois picked off only six passes. Dere Hicks at cornerback and Donsay Hardeman at safety are the only two returning players that had an interception last year. Hardeman is a senior in his second season after being a very promising JUCO transfer last season. With 44 tackles and a pick he is expected to make an even bigger leap in year two. Garrett Edwards and Travon Bellamy should also see some time at safety, especially since Hardeman is recovering from a neck injury.

As a whole, this is a defense that is battling some serious injury and discipline issues. There is talent, but no less than four key players are uncertain because of injury, academics, or discipline. They aren't a group that will pick off a ton of passes and they could be susceptible against the run.

Illinois Special Teams:

Matt Eller is a decent sophomore kicker, hitting 15 of 20 field goals in his rookie year. He was not a weapon on kickoffs though. Illinois gave up two kickoff returns for touchdowns and almost 25 yards per return. That means we should be able to get decent field position. The punting was almost equally awful. Opponents averaged 11 yards  per return and Anthony Santella averaged less than 40 yards per kick.

In the return game we must keep our eyes on Benn. While he hasn't broken a return for a touchdown, he has the ability to do so. He'll handle both kick and punt return duties. We can't kick away from him on kickoffs, either. A.J. Jenkins averaged 22.3 yards per return with a touchdown last year as the second half of a dangerous return tandem.

Intangibles:

With this game being the seventh on the schedule for the Illini it presents an interesting situation. Illinois has an absolutely brutal slate before this game. The only sure wins are Illinois State and Indiana. There is a very strong chance they will be 2-4 with losses to Missouri, Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan State. That would make our game a must win possibly to save Ron Zook's job.

Personally, I view it a must win for us. If we're going to go bowling we have to get the four most winnable games we play at home against Toledo, Northern Illinois, Northwestern, and Illinois. It is probably the biggest swing game we face all year. Win, and we may only need a late season win at Indiana to go to a bowl. Lose, and we'll need a home upset over Michigan State, a road upset at Wisconsin, or an unlikely win at Michigan.

Those two factors are huge. We could have a lot to play for given our coaching situation and expectations, while Illinois may have nothing to play for given theirs. I am still not sold on Zook's coaching talent. Illinois managed to parlay one big upset at Ohio State into a Rose Bowl berth. That is really all they have accomplished as a program since 2001. Even with a talent advantage over most teams they have a worse track record than Notre Dame in terms of developing that talent and getting the most out of it. Of all the programs in the Big Ten, Illinois seems to be the one that has the wildest fluctuations. In this decade alone they have either played in a BCS bowl or no bowl at all. 2009 looks to fit right in with that history. They have the talent to be in the BCS, but the result could be very different.

Game Outlook:

I am excited to see an erratic passer in Juice Williams face off against one of the best secondaries in the Big Ten. I am even more excited that new defensive coordinator Donn Landholm stresses creating turnovers against a team that is turnover prone. Williams has certainly improved since 2006, but that game was a nightmare for him. With an even worse defense than we have now, Williams turned the ball over four times... in five plays.

Offensively, we should have some room to run the ball. All we need to do is give Elliott time to throw and the Illinois secondary isn't known for its tight coverage. I really like or chances going into this game, and it needs to end as a win.

Prediction:

I am not sold on Illinois. Maybe Toki from Hail To The Orange will have some things to say that will convince me otherwise, but I think Illinois is going to have a rough year. It will also cost Ron Zook his job. I think Purdue holds its own at home and gets a step closer to bowl eligibility. Purdue 27, Illinois 21

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