Know thy Opponent 2010: Illinois Fighting Illini

By the time we battle for the Cannon (and I can't believe this is not a protected rivalry, but Northwestern is) we should have a pretty good idea about the future of Ron Zook. Illinois' schedule is once again front loaded with Missouri, Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan State in their first four conference games. They also get Northern Illinois, which broke our season last year. A 2-5 (or worse) record is a real possibility by the time we visit Champaign, and that would likely mean a change in coaching staff.

Still, this is a dangerous team because they have an impressive collection of talent. They can turn it on for a few games, as referenced by the entire 2007 season and their run over Michigan and Minnesota last year. There is no guarantee that this game will be a win again, especially since it is the second of two consecutive road games for us. This is also a dangerous game because there is often very little excitement around it. Since it is sandwiched between the trip to Ohio State and home game against Wisconsin it could be a trap game for us.  

2009 Record: 3-9, 2-6 Big Ten

Bowl result: No Bowl

Blog Representation: Hail to the Orange

Series with Purdue: Illinois leads 41-38-6 (Purdue leads The Cannon portion 30-26-2)

Last Purdue win: 10/24/2009 at Purdue 24-14

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

Last Season for the Fighting Illini

Honestly, I am a little surprised that Ron Zook survived the year. Other than a late spurt that saw victories over Michigan and Minnesota the season was a disaster. Illinois was blown out by Missouri in their annual Border War battle in St. Louis to start the year and it only got worse from there. Sure, they beat Brock Spack's Illinois State team, but an 0-5 start to conference play sealed their fate. They would be a little feisty in a late season loss at #5 Cincinnati, but the wild final game against Fresno State was nearly the perfect ending. Illinois appeared to stop a two-point conversion attempt for the Bulldogs, only to have an offensive linesman catch a tipped pass and fall into the endzone for a 53-52 win.

It was a crazy season because the offense did little to nothing at first, then was effective in four of the last five games only to have the defense fail to stop anyone. They scored 36 and 52 points in their last two games, but gave up 49 and 53. Will there be a turnaround this year?

Illinois Offense

Last season's game against the Illini was an exercise in musical quarterbacks. Isaiah "Juice" Williams played most of the game, even running for a touchdown. Long time backup quarterback turned wide receiver Eddie McGee completed one pass, while Jacob Charest saw his first career action going 4 for 8 for 52 yards. Williams has graduated and McGee is still at wide receiver. Charest finished the year going 28 of 56 with 382 yards, two interceptions, and two touchdowns. He hasn't won the starting job at quarterback though, as redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase is already at the top of the depth chart before playing a game. The Zooker appears to be going all in with the four star recruit from Kansas City. He will be tested early against that tough schedule, so it is nice to have Charest as a backup and even McGee as an emergency guy. Chandler Whitmer is another four-star true freshman that was the catch of this past season's class.

Illinois's success in 2007 came mostly from Rashad Mendenhall having an outstanding season at running back. Mikel Leshoure could have a similar breakout season. He ran for 122 yards against us last season and 734 total in a good sophomore year. He finished with five touchdowns while missing two games. He is a bigger back at 6' 225, so a 1,000 yard season is certainly possible. Jason Ford (588-4) offers a nice compliment to Leshoure. Because of this experience and a change in offensive philosophy we can expect Illinois to run the ball a lot.

Scheelhaase has some good targets to throw to other than McGee (4-108-0). Jared Fayson (16-218-1) and Chris Duvalt (23-361-3) were the top two receivers that come back from last year. Ultimately, the passing game did very little though. Arrelious Benn was the leading receiver with only 38 catches for 490 yards and two scores. He left for the NFL, leaving a talented, but raw group behind him. A.J Jenkins (10-123-1) and Jack Ramsey (16-182-0) need to step up more. London Davis is a promising sophomore tight end that can help too.

The offensive line wasn't bad last year in giving up only 29 sacks, but the offense as a whole only got over 20 points per game thanks to the blowout of Illinois State and the final two games against Cincinnati and Fresno State. In Big Ten play Illinois scored 17 points or fewer in all six losses. Graham Pocic is listed as the starting center and only senior of the group. Randall Hunt and Hugh Thronton are the guards while Corey Lewis and Jeff Allen were the tackles. This is a decent group. If Illinois can finally get consistent quarterback play they will be fine.

Illinois Defense

Illinois' defense did very little last year. They managed just five interceptions (against 12 surrendered), 19 sacks, and 11 fumbles recovered. Teams ran on them for more than 1800 yards and passed on them for almost 3,000. That led to more than 30 points per game. There were no real stars on this unit, and haven't been since the immortal J Leman left. Junior linebacker Ian Thomas had a good season with 95 tackles, a sack, and a fumble recovery. He'll be expected to do a lot at middle linebacker. Russel Ellington (42 tackles, 1 INT) also returns to give them even more experience at the spot. Evan Frierson will be the third starter after appearing in 12 games as a reserve.

The Fighting Illini secondary was among the worst in the conference last year. They gave up a lot of yards through the air and of the four projected starters, they had just two interceptions. Cornerback Terry Hawthorne had one of those picks. Hail to the Orange views him as possibly the best player ont he team, but he still is young. He fared well as a true freshman with 44 tackles, so he should be better with more experience. The departure of Dere Hicks leaves a second corner spot open for Travon Bellamy and Tavon Wilson to compete. Garrett Edwards was second on the team in tackles at safety with 79 and an interception. Walter Aikens and Supo Sanni will likely compete for the other safety spot. Justin Green, a four star DB in 2009, amy also compete.

The defensive line needs to be rebuilt after losing three starters. Tackle Josh Brent is the lone returning starter with three sacks. Defensive end Clay Nurse also lead the team with 5.5 sacks despite not being a starter. Nurse can develop into a nice rush end, and he had a four sack game at Minnesota. Sadly, that was more than 20% of Illinois' sack total for the entire season. Whitney Mercilus could be a starter at the other end spot, while Corey Liuget will likely take the other tackle spot. Michael Buchanan and Lendell Butler were four-star recruits in 2009 that need to contribute.

Illinois Special Teams

Derek Dimke and Matt Eller split kicking duties last year. Dimke was 5 for 5 with a long of 48. Eller was only 4 of 11 with a long of 38, so expect Dimke to take on a larger role.  Eller may take over punting duties anyway after Anthony Santella departed as one of the league's best punters.

Troy Pollard was the top kickoff returner, but barely averaged over 20 yards per game. Illinois did even less in the pount return game by having only a 4.2 yard average. In turn, their coverage units gave up a touchdown each way and allowed a dramatic shift in terms of field position. The kickoff coverage team gave up 23 yards per return while the punt team gave up 7.7.

Intangibles

Much of this game depends on how Illinois handles the first half of its season. There are certainly some pieces there for a run. If they struggle out of the gate their season could be effectively over by the time we play them. It also could be obvious that Ron Zook's career as coach could be over, making them a lame duck team playing for a lame duck coach. Hail to the Orange is not terribly confident about the season. Most other predictions have them struggling as well. This is the one game of the year where momentum will be a huge factor. If Illinois survives in its early schedule, they will be confident. If they start like last year, they might have quit on the season already by this point.

Since this is the closest road trip for Purdue fans in terms of proximity to campus I expect a big Purdue crowd. I plan on going, and tickets can already be had for extremely cheap. What would you rather do, pay $150 (to the school itself) to listen to Notre Dame arrogance for four hours, or pay $20 to Stubhub and see a fellow Big Ten school that at least respects us. As far as I am concerned, that is $130 for gas and beer.

Game Outlook

Nathan Scheelhaase is the key to the season. If he performs better than expected Illinois can do very well. It is a big risk though. Charest and McGee are the only players on the roster with collegiate experience at the position, and neither has much. I honestly don't understand why Zook isn't going with McGee (the guy with the most experience) in a season he needs to save his job. Illinois is going to try and run the ball more. They had success against us last year and until we prove we can stop the run we will be vulnerable. It is clear that with players like Leshoure and Ford they have pieces in place to have a dominant running game.

That said, there is little confidence in the defense. If Ralph Bolden is back by this point he is merely another weapon for us. If not, I expect Al-Terek McBurse to be much more seasons by this point too. Robert Marve should be in total control of the offense by this point too. Everyone seems to be reserving their judgment of our offense until they see about Bolden, but I think we will be fine. We have talented receivers, two good tight ends in Kyle Adams and Jeff Lindsey, and a quarterback that will be fine. Illinois is also the victim of our current longest winning streak in Big Ten play. We have beaten the Illini five straight times to close the gap in the all-time series. We also now lead the Cannon portion by four games.

Prediction:

Purdue's offense gets rolling in this one. It will be closer if Illinois has something to play for. If not, this could get ugly. Seeing as how this is late July, I go right down the middle. Purdue 27, Illinois 17.

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