Know Thy Opponent 2011: Illinois Fighting Illini

With seven ICONS and six previews to write I figured I should start churning out some content, especially since football media days are in two weeks and I want to spend most of August looking at our own squad. That means it is time for me to stop being lazy and get on with these previews.

Assuming we're 4-2 at this point, the home game against Illinois is a critical one. Among the choices for a sixth win (assuming MTSU, Rice, SEMO, Minnesota, and Indiana are wins) the Fighting Illini seem to be the consensus pick. Yes, they drilled us a year ago, but we all know the Fighting Illini love to go on wild swings from good to bad. The good usually occurs when they have a stud running back in the backfield. Mikel Leshoure is preparing to ply his trade with the Detroit Lions, so they lose that element.

What doesn't fill me with confidence is our own coaching staff. Last season we ran the most retarded game plan I have ever seen. It was so bad I don't think you could even dignify it by calling it a game plan. When Rob Henry took snaps it was like we had a sign up on our sideline that said, "We're running this play". If it was Sean Robinson, the sign said, "We're throwing this play". Combined with some atrocious mistakes (the kickoff fumble, anyone?) I was fleeing Memorial Stadium last fall like it was on fire very early in the second half. It was so bad the Illinois fans around us had sympathy because we came to watch that mess.

2010 Purdue Football: Other Fans Pity Us

2010 Record: 7-6, 4-4

Bowl result: Won Texas Bowl 38-14 over Baylor

Blog Representation: Hail to the Orange

Series with Purdue: Illinois leads 42-38-6 (Purdue leads The Cannon portion 30-27-2)

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

Last Illinois win: 10/30/2010 at Illinois 44-10

Last Season for the Illini:

Once again, they saved Ron Zook's job. The Zooker was the leader at the beginning of the season of the "coaches that will be fired with another bad season" sweepstakes, but a solid 7-6 season with a bowl win kept him in Champaign. Because they won with a young Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback they are a dark horse pick to make a run in this year's Big Ten. I wouldn't agree with that because they were still very erratic even with Leshoure.

First of all, they are the only team in football history to score 65 points and lose. Their triple overtime 67-65 game with Michigan was fun to watch, but both defenses should be forced to sit in the corner and think about what they did (or did not do). Second, their erratic nature against the run of play makes the season very difficult to predict. They beat good teams in Penn State and Northwestern quite easily, but they lost to Minnesota and Fresno State. At least they will no longer have Missouri kicking them around to start the season. The Tigers won all four games in their St. Louis series, most by double digits.

Illinois offense:

Much of what Illinois wants to do will rely around Scheelhaase, who is possibly the best dual-threat quarterback in the conference. He is certainly in the conversation with Denard Robinson up at Michigan. Through the air he completed almost 59% of his passes for 1,825 yards and 17 scores and just eight picks. He was even better at home with 10 scores against one interception. That could be a key in starting the season strong, as the Illini begin with six of their first seven games at home, and only games against Arizona State and Ohio State are difficult. For the record, four of his ten TD passes at home came against us.

Scheelhaase is also an excellent rushing QB. He topped 100 yards in four games last season (including 118 against us) and finished with 868 yards and five touchdowns for the year. He is the top returning rusher, but his numbers pale in comparison to Leshoure's 1,697 yards (a school record) and 17 touchdowns. Jason Ford (480-7) has the inside track to be the primary tailback, but offenses don't generally get better when they lose someone of Leshoure's caliber. Leshoure also had 196 yards receiving and three TD's out of the backfield, so they lose close to 1,900 yards and 20 touchdowns.

The passing game will need to improve, and the tools are there with A.J. Jenkins (56-746-7) as the primary receiver. Illinois will likely try to make him a 1,000 yard receiver in his final season, while Ford looks to be a 1,000 yard rusher. Tight End Evan Wilson (10-135-2) is the next best returning guy, but there isn't a lot of proven talent after those two. Ryan Lankford had a solid average of six catches for 129 yards and a score, but the Illini had 19 different players catch at least one pass, including Scheelhaase. We should expect a wide open offense where Scheelhaase can run on any play and every eligible receiver is fair game. Finally, Jon Davis was a Top 150 ESPN recruit that the Zooker was able to sign.

In talking with Joe Kutsunis of Hail to the Orange even he doesn't know who will start along the offensive line. Hugh Thornton and Graham Pocic are two returning starters, but both tackle spots are up for grabs from a line that gave up 25 sacks a year ago. This is a critical battle for Illinois. They lost even their two top reserves from last season's depth chart to graduation. Corey Lewis, who missed last season with a torn ACL, is in line to start at left tackle.

Illinois Defense

The pass rush was a pleasant surprise last year. After finishing dead least in the Big Ten in 2009 the defensive line, led by Chargers' draftee Corey Liuget recorded 23 sacks. Illinois lost 8.5 of those when Liuget headed to the NFL and top linebacker Martez Wilson were both drafted. Wilson will be helping Drew Brees on defense for the Saints, which is fine with me.

Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan are the two returning starters on the line. Spence had 45 tackles with a sack a year ago, while Buchanan had 40 stops with two sacks. Clay Nurse and Liuget were the primary pass rushers and both need to be replaced. Whitney Mercilus and Justin Staples will likely be the leading candidates to replace them.

Ian Thomas is the only returning linebacker as a starter. He had 67 tackles, a sack, and an interception, but the Illini have to replace Wilson's superior production. Ashante Wilson and Evan Frierson will be the top candidates to replace Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey.

We were one of the few teams unable to pass on the Illinois secondary a year ago. They gave up 2,867 yards and 20 touchdowns through the air, but we couldn't even throw for 100. In fact, we barely got over 50 yards on just seven completions, four of which came in the fourth quarter after we were trailing 37-0. Terry Hawthorne (28 tackles, 1 interception) returns as a starter at cornerback, but the other spot is open after Travon Bellamy graduated. Don't be surprised if 4-star recruit Dondi Kirby gets a shot early on in the secondary. At 6'3" and 180 pounds he has the physical tools to play immediately. Trulon Henry (64 tackles, three interceptions) led the team in picks and should be back as a starting safety. Like most of the defense, Illinosi must find replacements after losing talented starters. Don't be surprised if they get in some shootouts.

Illinois Special Teams:

Derek Dimke was excellent last year, hitting 24 of 29 field goals and a long of 52. Illinois should have the offense to get him in range once again, making him a useful weapon. All-Big Ten punter Anthony Santella and his near 45-yard per kick average is gone, leaving a hole in the punting game.

Illinois's punt return game was virtually non-existent last season, as they averaged a meager 3.2 yards per kick. Darius Millines will likely return kicks again, but he averaged a paltry 19.5 yards per return.

Game Outlook:

I would feel good about this game, but I still have the bad taste of my trip to Champaign last season. I have seen us play some bad football over the years, but that game was one of the worst. If we had even a bad offensive gameplan as opposed to downright stupid we're at least in the game. We only trailed 17-0 at the half, but it felt like 170 because we couldn't move the ball at all. Scheelhaase put on a clinic in the third quarter against a defense that was trying hard. The offense gave them no support whatsoever though. I was at our 37-0 blowout at Wisconsin and at least I can understand that one. We got pushed around by a bigger, stronger Badger team. Against Illinois we consistently got in our own way and seemed to have no offensive plan at all.

I feel like we're in the same position going into 2011, and I don't like the news that we're going to go with a quarterback rotation. I don't care who starts between Marve and Henry, but I feel we have to stick with one guy if we're going to generate any consistency on offense. I fear that Henry telegraphs running plays, while Marve telegraphs throwing plays. The Illinois offense is too good to expect a win on defense alone, so we have to show that we're going to move the football against a defense that lost its best playmakers.

Prediction:

I don't feel good when Scheelhaase essentially went apeshit on us, but he has been a different quarterback on the road so far. We have to contain him and hope our offense is at least a threat by this point in the year. Right now, I don't trust us to do either. Illinois 24, Purdue 14

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