When the season started I think we all pointed toward this weekend's game as a necessary win toward a bowl game. There were low expectations for the Illini, and the likelihood of a prison-style fight between Boilerdowd and Ron Zook was higher than a bowl bid. Illinois has impressed many though, while Purdue has suffered injuries to it seems like everyone except third string long snapper Jesse Schmitt. As a result, we're being given little chance at success on Saturday.
This was the story after the Toledo loss though. While I would give anything to replay the Rockets and reverse that result, we can't. We still recovered to beat a pretty good Northwestern team (making them overrated because they lost to Purdue). Not many people believe any more because of the debacle in Columbus, but as we have seen in the past, that's about the time we surprise some people.
Sure, Sean Robinson is probably getting his first career start, but Illinois is hardly as hostile a road environment as the Horseshoe. There should even be a substantial number of Purdue fans since it is technically the closest Big Ten venue to West Lafayette. The Fighting Illini don't boast a potent offense, either, so we can make this game a win with a modicum of success against a good, but not fantastic defense as long as ours is ready to play. Since they will be in our division next season the Cannon rivalry can finally feel like a true rivalry game every year going forward too.
2009 Record: 3-9, 2-6 Big Ten
2010 Record: 4-3, 2-2 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)
The Fighting Illini are not exactly blowing the doors off their opponents. In fact, only the win over Penn State in Happy Valley is a bit of a surprise, and the Nittany Lions are better than only us in terms of scoring offense, so that win is not as good as some think. Illinois has beat Northern Illinois, Southern Illinois, Penn State, and Indiana mostly on the strength of its defense. The 30 point win over Indiana was aided by 16 points scored directly by the defense. The Hoosiers gave up five turnovers, greatly helping the cause.
They are still a dangerous team because of Mikel Leshoure and the running ability of Nathan Scheelhaase. Leshoure has 757 yards rushing and four touchdowns, meaning we have to stop him unlike our poor performance against Dan Herron last week. Scheelhaase has proven he can run about as well as Rob Henry with 333 yards and two more scores. Jason Ford also contributes to the ground game with 174 yards and two scores. As a team, Illinois has 1,300 yards rushing and less than 1,000 yards passing. Even we have 1,000 yards passing as a team.
Scheelhaase, a redshirt freshman, has been up and down in the passing game with 904 yards, six touchdowns, and seven interceptions. This tells me that if we can slow down the running game we have a chance. Will Lucas and Dwayne Beckford must key on Leshoure while containing Scheelhaase if he tucks and runs.
Scheelhaase's top targets are Jarred Fayson (28-239-1) and A.J. Jenkins (27-363-3). In a way, this makes the pass defense much easier. Only Leshoure, with nine catches out of the backfield, has more than five receptions. I am hoping even our safeties can understand that Jenkins and Fayson are the receiving threats, while Ricardo Allen can continue his improvement at the corner.
All this looks so simple on paper, especially when Illinois has given up 13 sacks and nine interceptions. This is not a passing team. They are going to run, and we need to be able to stop them. We should stuff the box, tell our safeties that Fayson and Jenkins are the only targets, cover them with Allen and Josh Johnson, and dare Scheelhaase to throw. This offense has committed 15 turnovers in seven games, so there will be chances. When Illinois has lost it is because they have been able to generate very little on offense. They haven't scored more than 13 points in their 3 losses, but they've topped 28 in all four wins.
Whether Robinson starts or Henry is able to go, they will be facing a pretty good defense that is allowing little more than 17 points per game. Still, if we can scratch out that 17 and hold them to the magical 13 that equals a win.
Martez Wilson is the key to the defense, and he is probably one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten with 65 tackles and two sacks. At 6'4" 250 he has excellent size and speed to play either against the pass or the run. Ian Thomas is also solid at linebacker with 45 tackles and a pair of fumble recoveries. Nate Bussey rounds out the top three tacklers as an experienced senior linebacker with 44 tackles, a sack, an interception, and a fumble recovery. This is a very versatile group with a ton of experience. It is no wonder that Illinois' strength lies on this side of the ball because these guys make things happen.
Illinois can cause havoc in the passing game with a decent pass rush that has created 14 sacks and 40 tackles for loss. Of course, they have also given up 40 tackles for loss, meaning their offensive line is a concern, but they at least equalize it. Corey Liuget leads the team with three sacks, seven tackles for loss, and nine QB hits. Michael Buchanan also does well with a sack, as does freshman Akeem Spence. Clay Nurse, who had a four sack game against Minnesota last season, has been disappointing with only seven tackles and a sack, but he is still dangerous.
The defensive secondary is led by safety Trulon Henry with 41 tackles and a pair of interceptions. I would bet that he will play up against the run given our lack of a passing game, especially if Robinson starts. Corners Terry Hawthorne and Travon Bellamy are decent. Hawthorne has one interception, but only seven tackles since he has played in only two games. Bellamy has 44 tackles. Tavon Wilson is the second safety with 25 tackles and a sack. This group picked off Ben Chappell four times on Saturday, with Patrick Nixon-Youman and Jonathan Brown each taking a pick to the house.
Statistically, this defense ranks 15th in the country in points allowed, which is really the only statistic that matters. They did well against a very good Missouri team and have given up a maximum of 26 points on the season. This certainly does not bode well for our offense that struggled to score points even when we were completely healthy. We're going to need an improved defensive performance just to stay in this one.
Illinois Special Teams:
Derek Dimke has been a very reliable kicker this season, hitting on 14 of 16 field goal attempts. He has a long of 52, so Illinois is a threat to score as long as they get to the 35. Anthony Santella is one of the best punters in the nation with a 46.5 yard average and 11 of 33 kicks longer than 50 yards. Since we have a pathetic 15 punt return yards on the season this is a huge advantage.
Troy Pollard is averaging over 25 yards per kickoff return while Illinois only averages 2.5 yards per punt return. Basically, if either team gets anything at all in the punt return game it will be a huge boost. Considering we could do nothing against the Big Ten's worst punting unit last week (and even turned it over once) I am not encouraged.
Also of note, Illinois blocked consecutive punts last week against Indiana, meaning Cody Webster and Carson Wiggs will have to be vigilant.
A lot of people like Illinois for the win at Penn State. It was a good win, as few teams go into Happy Valley and stomp the Nittany Lions like that, but the other three wins are over a 1-AA team, a MAC team, and one of the bottom teams in the Big Ten. Of course their three losses (to teams with one combined loss) are much better than two of ours (OSU being equal). To me, these teams are very similar if you look at the teams they have beaten. The defense is the strength and needs to play well for them to win. We need the same, and have had success when our defense has come through. The offense struggles in the passing game but moves it effectively on the ground. That should make for a compelling game. Of course, they did beat their MAC opponent, while we crapped the bed against Toledo. This is why they are favored, and rightfully so.
This is the official Hammer & Rails Road Trip for the season (Notre Dame doesn't count since I was credentialed), so that means we're getting a running diary from the time we leave on Friday night. Unfortunately, it means I am putting my awful road record on the line:
3-2 at Indiana (2001, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009)
2-1 at Illinois (2002, 2004, 2006)
1-0 at Cincinnati (2001)
1-0 at Northwestern (2006)
0-1 at Michigan (2007)
0-1 at Michigan State (2008)
0-1 at Hawaii (2006)
0-1 at Ohio State (2003)
0-1 at Minnesota (2005)
0-1 at Rose Bowl (2001)
0-1 at Wisconsin (2009)
0-1 at Notre Dame (2010)
That's a 7-11 record when I see Purdue play in person away from Ross-Ade, and only four of the wins have occurred away from IU. Fortunately, Illinois is the last place other than IU where I saw Purdue win on the road. What does this mean? Most likely, nothing.
I don't think too much depends on if we see Henry or Robinson at quarterback. Teams have had more success passing against Illinois than running it, and I think Robinson may be a better passer than Henry. This is based mostly on his high school career and a very limited statistical set in college, but with a week of practice I think we can at least get a modicum of a passing game together. If not, we're in for a long day because Illinois only gives up about 100 yards per game on the ground. They showed what they can do last week against Indiana when facing a one-dimensional offense. If we come in only being able to run and not pass we're in trouble. this defense is too good to limit ourselves to only the ground game like we did at Northwestern.
Our own defense must keep it close too. Ryan Kerrigan needs to do Ryan Kerrigan things, while Kawann Short needs to continue his excellent play. I think we'll see more and more Will Lucas as well. Hopefully someone decides they want to play safety, because it looked like we didn't even have safeties on the field at Ohio State. Of course, if we get a similar effort to the Ohio State game it's not going to matter who we play. We have to find a way to make headway against a defense that is giving up very little, all while slowing down one of the best running backs in the Big Ten. It does not look promising.
This is a huge game for us because it represents our best chance at getting win #5 before facing Indiana. We're not beating Wisconsin or Michigan State unless it is a major upset. Michigan is a toss-up at best, so we have to get this win to secure that we're playing IU for a bowl game as a worst case scenario. People are still saying we shouldn't celebrate a 6-6 season that ends in Detroit as a good year and normally I would agree with them. After every injury we've had to overcome, however, that would be a huge positive and allow us to get the necessary extra practices in order to get better as a program. If that isn't a positive, then we really have no reason to play the rest of the year.