Know Thy Opponent 2014: Illinois Fighting Illini

Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

Purdue almost beat Illinois last season in West Lafayette. Can that lead to a real, live Big Ten victory in 2014?

Purdue played in eight Big Ten football games last season, leading to 32 quarters of action. Purdue held a lead at the end of exactly one of those quarters. Purdue led Illinois, then on a 20-game losing streak in league play, 14-7 at the end of the first quarter of perhaps the worst Big Ten football game I have ever attended. The Boilers then gave up a 30-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second quarter and eventually lost 20-16.

The loss to Illinois was probably the nadir of last season. At least Indiana had a good offense and the rest of the Big Ten took turns pounding us. Illinois has been the worst Big Ten team in about 30 years and has now lost 21 of its last 22 conference games. Despite having an awful run defense and Purdue even getting a 62-yard TD run from Akeem Hunt our offense was so terrible it mustered only 221 more yards against one of the worst defenses in the country.

Yes, it was bad. Fortunately, there probably won't be a ton of marked improvement from the Illini in 2014, and that means a chance at a real, live Big Ten victory.

2013 Record: 4-8, 1-7 Big Ten

Bowl result: None

Blog Representation: The Champaign Room

Series with Purdue: Illinois leads 43-40-6 (Purdue leads The Cannon portion 32-27-2)

Last Purdue win: 11/17/2012 at Illinois 20-17

Last Illinois win: 11/23/2013 at Purdue 20-16

Last Season for the Fighting Illini

The season started well for Illinois, as they had a very impressive 45-17 win over Cincinnati just a week after the Bearcats pounded Purdue. That ended p being the highlight, though, as they squeezed by Southern Illinois before beating up a Miami (OH) team that might have been one of the few teams in the country worse than Purdue. Once in conference play, the Illini lost five of their first six games by 20 or more before finally breaking their skid in West Lafayette. A late loss to Northwestern ended the season 4-8

That has Tim Beckman on the hot seat heading into 2014, and a loss to a lousy Purdue team early in league play certainly won't help. Beckman is just 6-18 in two years in Champaign and is 1-15 against the Big Ten. What's worse, two of those wins have come against FCS competition and there have not been major signs of improvement despite having some pretty good talent. Illinois had a four-year starter at QB last season and some talented individual players, but it still did not lead to success.

Illinois offense

Nathan Scheelhaase is gone! Scheelhaase is the most recent recipient of the Curtis Painter Lifetime Achievement Award given to Big Ten QBs that start for four years, but leave with high numbers and no significant victories in their careers. The offense was often not the problem, however. Scheelhaase threw for over 3,200 yards and had 21 touchdowns, plus he was always a threat with his legs. It could move the ball, but the defense couldn't stop anyone.

The loss of Scheelhaase leaves a three-way battle for a new starter. Reilly O'Toole has the experience in the Bill Cubit offense, going 12 for 16 in spot duty last season with a score. He is also a senior that has started a few times earlier in his career and has almost 1,000 yards passing. He will battle sophomore Aaron Bailey and former Oklahoma State quarterback Wes Lunt, who is eligible after sitting out last season. Bailey is a QB more in the mold of Scheelhaase in that he moves well on the run. Lunt is more of a true passer that had 1,100 yards for the same Oklahoma State team that pounded us in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Lunt currently has the edge coming out of the spring, but that could change.

The running game has some promise with junior Josh Ferguson coming off of a season with 779 yards and seven touchdowns. Both he and Donovonn Young (376-3) are very capable of moving the ball on the ground with consistency, and Bailey can move it as well with 83 yards rushing in limited action. The ground game is most likely going to be Young and Ferguson in exclusive roles.

The Illini are going to be a passing team, howver, and after losing top receiver Steve Hull it needs to find reliable pass catchers. The top returning player is Ferguson, who caught 50 passes for 520 yards out of the backfield. Martize Barr, Matt LaCosse, and Jon Davis all had experience in reserve roles last year, but the three main starters must all be replaced.

The offense overall is going to be a lot like the much maligned Nordfense. Illinois is going to try and spread teams out and go horizontal rather than vertical. Screens and underneath through will dink and dunk them down the field, and an experienced offensive line should help. Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic have combined for over 10 starts on the leftside and Ted Karras along with Alex Hill provide stability in the middle. Only the right tackle needs to be replaced.

Illinois Defense

In a word, the Illini defense was awful last year. It was 112th nationally in total yards and 118th in rushing. Still, it wasn't so bad as to let our putrid offense push them around. After two first quarter touchdowns it completely shut down our offense last season, and that was enough for the Illini to win back the Cannon.

Most of the starters return, however. There is almost no pass rush whatsoever with Dawuane Smoot as the top returning player in sacks with... one. Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell provide some bulk in the middle of the line, but nobody who returns had significant tackles for loss. The linebackers won't get better with Jonathan Brown having signed with the Cardinals in the NFL. Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina return as starters at linebackers, but Brown was one of the best players in the Big Ten.

As for the secondary, not much can be said. As a team Illinois just didn't pick off many passes at all with only three all season. One of those came against Danny Etling, so that should tell you the depths to which our offense sank. That interception was by V'Angelo Bentley on 4th and 9 from the Illinois 30 with about a minute left as Purdue was driving for the winning score.

The only standout in the secondary was Earnest Thomas III, who had 79 tackles and 7 pass break ups. You have to think that if there is even marginal improvement from the Purdue offense there will be some points to score in this game. As it was, Purdue got inside the 30 three times in the final three quarters last year only to come away with zero points thanks to a missed field goal, a turnover on downs, and an interception.

Illinois Special Teams

The difference in last year's game was Taylor Zalewski. Paul Griggs missed a 35-yard field goal in the second quarter, while Zalewski hit two fourth quarter kicks for the win. Overall he was 10 of 12 on the season and was accurate enough to be a threat when the Illini got close.

On returns Bentley could be a weapon as close to Raheem Mostert as we will see. He had both a punt and a kick returned for a touchdown last season and averaged an impressive 15.8 yards per return on punts.

Game Outlook

This could be a major turning point game for our entire program. As bad as Purdue was last season, it still came very close to beating an Illinois team that honestly was not much better. Had we not had an offense full of bullet-ridden shoes the game likely would have been a victory, but it completely disappeared in the final three quarters.

Purdue has some definite offensive weapons. De'Angelo Yancey, Mostert, Hunt, Etling, Danny Anthrop, and Cameron Posey are all decent players that can move the football, but the question, as always, will be the offensive line. An Illinois team that barely pressured the quarterback sacked Etling twice and a run defense that couldn't stop anyone gave up 95 yards in the first quarter and 28 the rest of the way.

Honestly, neither of these teams is going to be that great in 2014, either. That makes this a key chance at a conference win early in the season. Should Purdue handle its business outside of the Big Ten it would be 3-2 overall coming in. A win over Illinois can make that 4-2, and an unlikely bowl bid is suddenly possible heading into the back half of the season. With games against good, but not great teams in Minnesota, Northwestern, and Indiana in that back half who knows what can happen.

Yes, this game can be won. It just depends on how much each team improves. Prediction: Purdue 24, Illinois 21

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