Someone HAS to win.
That is the way both fanbases are looking at this game. Purdue has not won a football game of any kind since September 7th and is in danger of tying their longest losing streak since 1991. When the finished 1-10 by losing the last nine games of the season. Illinois has at least won five non-conference games, but has not been victorious in a Big Ten Conference game since beating Indiana 41-20 on October 8, 2011.
Amazingly, the Fighting Illini moved to No. 16 in the rankings and were 6-0 after that game. They are 6-23 since, have fired a coach, won perhaps the worst bowl matchup in college football history, and could be on the verge of firing another coach if they reach 0-for-their-last-22 Big Ten games by dropping the next two against likely winless in the conference Big Ten teams.
Over this span Purdue has beaten the Illini twice to win back and retain the Cannon. Technically, the win in 2011 over a then 6-1 Illinois team was our last victory over a ranked opponent. They just happened to be ranked after falling off the cliff. Purdue hasn't been much better, but it reached a bowl game in 2011 and won it just like Illinois did. Last year Purdue wheezed past the Illini before beating Indiana and firing Danny Hope.
The six Illinois wins during this stretch have come over:
- A 6-8 UCLA team that was the only team to ever play in a bowl with a losing record, but got in via a technicality.
- A Western Michigan team that vastly underachieved, finished 4-8, then the Illini hired their coach as offensive coordinator.
- FCS Charleston Southern.
- FCS Southern Illinois on a goal-line stand late.
- Cincinnati early this year when Munchie Legaux snapped his leg.
- Miami (OH), one of the very few teams in the country with an offense worse than Purdue.
That last point is likely why many Illinois fans feel like they have a shot this weekend at ending their lengthy Big Ten skid. Purdue and Miami (OH) have been neck-and-neck for the dubious honor of the nation's worst offense. Purdue has at least been playing some good teams. Miami has a season high of 17 points in a loss to Akron and has been held to 10 points or less in seven of 11 games against a string of MAC opponents. The Illini haven't won since beating them 50-14.
There is a morbid fascination about this game going around the country. Can two really bad teams somehow produce an entertaining game? Will the derp be so high it will be unwatchable? Well, I am interested because for the first time two months Purdue has a legitimate shot of winning a football game. As a bonus, we would get to keep a rivalry trophy too!
Illinois Offense Vs. Purdue Defense:
The Illinois offense is not that bad, which likely gives them an advantage in this game. Nathan Scheelhaase has been better this year compared to last with 2,708 yards and 17 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. He is also still a running threat 197 yards and four scores. Think of him as a homeless man's Braxton Miller. Scheelhaase has the distinction of being the most experienced quarterback in the Big Ten, as he is in his fourth year of starting.
Illinois is not a strong running team, which is something that should come as a huge relief for Purdue. The Boilers have had to face Ameer Abdullah, Jordan Lynch, and Melvin Gordon as three of the top 10 rushers in the country. That doesn't even count the other very good backs (Carlos Hyde, Zach Zwinak, Mark Weisman, et. al) we have faced. Fortunately, Illinois rated 93rd in rushing nationally at only 136 yards per game. Josh Ferguson (554 yards, 5 TD) and Donovonn Young (352 yards, 3 TD) are decent, but Ferguson is the only one with a 100 yard game, and that came against Nebraska.
If Purdue can't stop the Illinois running game from picking up huge chunks it is truly hopeless. This is the worst run offense by far we have faced since Indiana State. Illinois will definitely air it out with a wide variety of receivers to throw to. Ferguson is the team's leader in receptions with 43 for 498 yards and four scores, so watching him out of the backfield is paramount. Steve Hull (36-669-4) is the deep threat while Spencer Harris, Martez Barr, Miles Osei, and Jon Davis all have 20 receptions or more.
Purdue's defensive line does need to take advantage of an offensive line that has given up 26 sacks and has made Scheelhaase run for his life on several occasions. Illinois has given up 72 tackles for loss, and that works out to more than seven per game. Given Purdue's problems getting off the field on third down something will have to give. Purdue does statistically have a good pass defense, but it mostly comes from teams not needing to pass against us because the run defense is so bad.
Is this the game that Ryan Russell and Bruce Gaston finally get some time in the backfield? Illinois does seem to be in a bit of disarray after a shoving match between coaches on the sideline against Ohio State. Clearly this is a more mentally fragile team than we have played in some time. They are used to getting down and staying down, so if Purdue can actually get some things going their way early, perhaps with a turnover since they are -6 in that department, the Boilers might be able to build on something.
Purdue Offense vs. Illinois Defense:
Well, the next two weeks we will find out exactly how bad the Purdue offense really is. I don't have a lot of confidence since we barely moved the ball on Indiana State, but Illinois and Indiana are the two worst defenses in the conference and two of the worst in the country. yes, they are worse than us, even. If Purdue cannot move the ball on them they can't move on anyone.
That said, the Illinois defense is at least better than Indiana's. Illinois 114th nationally in total defense at 493.5 yards given up per game while Purdue is 101st at 444.7. Here is how they stack up against teams Purdue has played in terms of their national rankings:
1. Michigan State 228.4
6. Wisconsin 287.8
8. Cincinnati 304.8
9. Iowa 319.2
10. Ohio State 322.5
34. Notre Dame 369.0
42. Nebraska 373.5
46. Penn State 375.7
89. Northern Ill. 427.0
114. Illinois 493.5
122. Indiana 534.8
So yeah, part of Purdue's struggles come from playing five of the 10 best defenses in the country (which it scored only 31 points against, 14 of which came from a short field after a muffed punt). The only defense it played outside of the top 50 (aside from Indiana State) was Northern Illinois. Purdue gained 524 yards that day, but turnovers were a major problem as Danny Etling threw two interceptions (one returned for a TD), Rob Henry threw two, and Purdue lost a fumble.
That was the best day for the Purdue offense in terms of yardage by far, so the Boilers should, should finally be able to move the ball the next two weeks. The Illini do have an all-Big Ten caliber linebacker in Jonathan Brown, who leads the defense with 94 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, and an interception. If Danny Etling can have some time to throw and he avoid staring receivers down the interception bug shouldn't bother him. Illinois has two picks on the year as a team. think of Brown a lot like Ryan Kerrigan two years ago: a great player on a bad unit.
Outside of Brown the Illini do not get much of a pass rush. Houston Bates has 2.5 sacks along with Tim Kynard. Earnest Thomas III and Mason Monheim are solid tacklers with both having over 80 but this is still not a great defense. They are 121st out of 123 teams ranked nationally in run defense at 259.7 yards given up per game. Let's put that in perspective: Indiana gave up 554 yards rushing last week, but on the season their run defense is still better than Illinois.
Of course, this may not mean much since Purdue is only better than Washington State, a team that can go entire games with less than 10 rushing attempts, at running the ball. Statistically Indiana and Illinois are so bad against the ground game that Purdue should accidentally be able to run for 200 yards even though they average a pitiful 65 yards per game. Remember Miami (OH)? They aren't a lot better than Purdue (115th nationally whereas Purdue is 122nd) in terms of running the ball, but they still ran over 150 yards on the Illini.
The pass defense for Illinois is 68th nationally at 233.8 yards per game, but they suffer from the same problem we do. Teams can run so easily against them that they do not have to pass.
Illinois will likely have an advantage in placekicking as Taylor Zalewski is 8 of 12 on the season and has actually attempted a kick in the past month. Purdue hasn't tried a field goal since October 19th and hasn't made one since September 28th.
The return game could be a major factor here, and that is where Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt come into play. Both have returned a kickoff for a touchdown this season for Purdue and each has two in his career. V'Angelo Bentley has a 100 yard return to his credit this season for Illinois. He has also returned a punt for a touchdown, while Purdue has had far more punts blocked for a TD since they last returned one for a score.
Cody Webster will have his work cut out for him, as Bentley is averaging 19.7 yards per punt return.
This is a winnable game for Purdue. I know I have said that in recent weeks as I have tried to drum up hope, but this time things do not have to be absolutely perfect with the other team screwing up royally for Purdue to win. They could actually go out and outplay a team for a victory. Illinois and Purdue have six common opponents to date in Cincinnati, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State, and Ohio State. Illinois has the only win against those six, an inexplicable 45-17 win over Cincinnati that looks more strange now than it did at the time.
In the other five games the Illini have at least done better than Purdue except against Michigan State. The Spartans won 42-3, while Purdue was shutout, but only gave up 14 points. Illinois even took Penn State, the same team that just beat Purdue, to overtime.
This is probably Purdue's best chance in the last two games to win a football game, mostly because the Indiana offense scares me far more than Illinois does. The Illini are mediocre on offense, but can at least score a few points at 30.2 per game. The offense is vastly skewed by the wins over Cincinnati (45-17) Southern Illinois (42-34) and Miami (50-14). In Big Ten play they haven't been great, but at least they have been better than Purdue. Still, their defense is so terrible that Purdue might actually be able to do something offensively, which would greatly help out our own defense.
At least this weekend one team will have an answer for their worst unit. If Purdue can go out, move the ball, and look like a functional offense Illinois fans can be like, "Wow, our defense is so bad we can't stop Purdue." If Purdue struggles offensively it can be like, "Wow, our offense is so bad we can't score on Illinois."
I am encouraged still by the Northern Illinois game. That was a better defense than Illinois and we moved the ball at will. Sure, we were down multiple touchdowns for most of the game, but we could say that about a lot of games and we still didn't move the ball. The Illinois offense is also nowhere near as potent at Northern Illinois. I think that makes for what should be a close, competitive game, something neither team has been in much of late.
Purdue sheds the "Worst Big Ten Season Ever" moniker if:
- The Running game finally gets on track and does what everyone else has against Illinois.
- Etling avoids multiple turnovers and the dreaded pick-six.
- Purdue's defense can finally get some stops against a struggling offense.
- Purdue contains Ferguson and Young on the ground.
- Purdue wins the turnover battle.
Illinois fires The Cannon to tear down our goal posts and end their streak if:
- Ferguson goes over 100 yards and has multiple TDs.
- The Scheelhaase that shredded Purdue as a freshman returns.
- Etling is sacked multiple times and turns the ball over.
- Purdue becomes the first team unable to run on Illinois.
- Scheelhaase converts multiple third and longs.