Know Thy Opponent 2012: Illinois Fighting Ilini

CHAMPAIGN IL - OCTOBER 02: Nathan Scheelhaase #2 of the Illinois Fighting Illini looks for a receiver against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Memorial Stadium on October 2 2010 in Champaign Illinois. Ohio State defeated Illinois 24-13. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The Purdue Cannon is the least heralded of the three trophies Purdue plays for in football. The Shillelagh is once again rarely seen in West Lafayette, but most Purdue football fans want to beat Notre Dame above all. The Old Oaken Bucket has taken up semi-permanent residence in the Mollenkopf since 1997, meaning that in the rare times it is gone something just feels off. Then there is the Cannon, which wasn't even guaranteed to be a regular trophy until last season.

Illinois values the Illibuck (Illinois-Ohio State) Trophy more. The Land of Lincoln Giant Monopoly Piece Trophy is more fiercely contested with Northwestern. The Cannon, surprisingly, is an after though even though Purdue and Illinois are the two closest Big Ten schools to each other. Purdue holds a 31-27-2 lead in the Cannon portion of the series, having won six of the last seven and 10 of the last 13 matches to move in front.

Given that Illinois finished last season so poorly and that they are in transition yet again I feel like this is another game Purdue should win. That said, Illinois is always a team that can surprise at any time. Look at the 2001 team that came out of nowhere to win the Big Ten, or the 2007 team that was given a Rose Bowl invite. With the Illini the talent is usually there, but the results are spotty.

2010 Record: 7-6, 2-6

Bowl result: Won Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl 20-14 over UCLA

Blog Representation: (Pending)

Series with Purdue: Illinois leads 42-39-6 (Purdue leads The Cannon portion 31-27-2)

Last Purdue win: 10/22/2011 at Purdue 21-14

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

Last Season for the Illini:

On October 8, 2011 Illinois was flying high. The Illini were 6-0 with a nice win over Arizona State and 2-0 with wins over Northwestern and Indiana to start the Big Ten season. The toughest remaining games were all at home, and there was legitimate hope that this team could make the Big Ten championship game. Illinois was ranked No. 16 when Ohio State came to Champaign struggling to score points on October 15.

That's when the bottom fell out. To put it kindly, the offense completely disappeared in the second half of the season as Illinois became the first team to win six games in a row and lose six in a row in one season. In successive weeks the offense scored 7, 14, 7, 14, 17, and 7 before finally topping 20 points against in the bowl victory over UCLA. This was following a stretch where the offense scored 33, 56, 17, 23, 38, and 41 with little trouble.

So what happened?

Illinois Offense:

Nathan Scheelhaase started out last season well, looking like he was in the mold of Denard Robinson and Braxton Miller, but with a better arm. He completed an impressive 63% of his passes and finished with 2,110 yard passing, 13 TDs against 8 INTs, a team high 624 yards rushing and six TDs on the ground. Those are solid numbers, but Illinois has had its best success with a bruising running back like Mikel Leshoure and Rashard Mendenhall carrying the load.

Jason Ford was not that back. He had a modest 600 yards and 7 TDs, but his production was nearly up to Leshoure or Mendenhall's standards. Because of that, the offense struggled and the defense, which was decent, could not pitch shutouts. Ford is now gone and Scheelhaase returns as a third year starter that Illinois will try to rally around under new coach Tim Beckman. Sophomore running back Donovonn Young (451 yards, 6 TDs) is also a nice offensive piece to build around.

Naturally, with a coaching transition taking place the depth chart is fluid. The only one I could find was dated from last September, so other than Young, Scheelhaase, and a few others it is pretty much a guessing game as to who we will see on the field.

Receiver A.J. Jenkins (90-1,276-8) is a huge loss in the passing game. He accounted for more than half of Scheelhaase's production and was a First-Team All-Big Ten selection. Junior Spencer Harris (26-226-1) was one of just two other players with more than 200 yards receiving. Tight end Jon Davis (22-187-1) was also a semi-reliable target. Darius Millines (19-218-1) was effective in just nine games.

Illinois lost three starting offensive linemen to graduation, which could be a blessing when they gave up 36 sacks in 13 games. Once again, that was with a mobile quarterback that can get away from defenders. Michael Heitz and Graham Pocic were the only non-senior starters in 2011.

Illinois Defense:

Like the loss of Jenkins on offense, losing Whitney Mercilus as the No. 26 pick overall to the Texans in the draft is a huge loss. No one got to the quarterback more in all of college football than Mercilus, who had 16 sacks last season. He was a first round talent as a junior, so I can't blame him for leaving after being a unanimous All-American and taking home a host of awards. He was essentially the 2011 version of Ryan Kerrigan, right down to nine forced fumbles.

Michael Buchanan, who played opposite Mercilus on the D-line, returns for his senior season and he was a Second-Team All-Big Ten selection with 7.5 sacks of his own. He has 9.5 career sacks, but he won't be able to pick up the leftovers anymore. Still, he is more than a solid player to build around. Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster returning at the tackle spots will also help. Spence was very active for a defensive tackle with 69 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and a fumble recovery.

Only Jonathan Brown returns as a starter at linebacker, but he led the Illini with 108 tackles and six sacks as Illinois was one of the best teams in the country at getting to the quarterback. Who starts alongside him is still a toss-up.

The secondary should be a strength with Terry Hawthorne, Supo Sanni, and Steve Hull returning as starters. Only the loss of Tavon Wilson is a major concern. Hawthrone intercepted three passes and Sanni and Hull each had one pick. All three players were also at 49 tackles or above.

Overall, the defense should once again be a strength. It was far from a weakness last season, allowing an impressive 19.6 points per game and only 123 yards on the ground. The pieces are definitely there for this unit to be excellent again, but unless the offense gets better the defense will practically have to be perfect.

Illinois Special Teams:

Derek Dimke is finally gone, meaning Illinois will have a new kicker for the first time in ages. Indianapolis native Ryan Frain was recruited to come in and possibly kick from day one, but he'll have to replace a career guy who was pretty solid. Justin DuVernois was okay splitting time with Ryan Lankford at punter, but neither player was an all-world type.

In what may be a first I have ever seen, Lankford also returned 19 punts for 33 yards and even saw time at receiver. He could also be the answer as a kick returner.

Game Outlook:

The Illinois defense should be pretty good even with the loss of Trulon Henry and Mercilus. Unfortunately, the offense was beyond awful to close the season and it lost a few of its only playmakers. There are some questions with the offensive line. Scheelhaase doesn't have Jenkins as a safety valve on every play anymore, either.

Right now it looks like it is going to be all Scheelhaase all the time. As 2001 Indiana taught us with Antwaan Randle El, that's good for winning a few games, but in the long run there has to be other options. The defense is good enough to get this team to a third straight bowl game. Western Michigan, Charleston Southern, and Louisiana Tech should be wins at home, with Penn State, Indiana, Purdue, and Minnesota also being very winnable home games. In fact, Illinois might have the easiest home schedule in the conference.

Prediction:

Purdue jumped to an early 21-0 lead last season and let the defense finish things off. That might be enough again this season. We should expect another low-scoring game here, and I like Purdue's chances any time we can hold a team under 20. Purdue 24, Illinois 17

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