I have to admit, I have been someone who had given up on this program before today. Sure, I felt there was the possibility of a bowl game and a win over the Fighting Illini, but the realist in me said they dominated every statistical category and they would show it today. It had also been 11 months since we last had a trophy, when Tandon Doss came across and took the Bucket from us following Mitch Ewald's field goal. Logic dictated that The Cannon would not return home today.
What we saw in the first half today was an entire team rising up against they're detractors and collectively saying, "ENOUGH!!!" Though both teams started slowly, Illinois' slow start was due to our defense playing lights out against the run and covering A.J. Jenkins. We forced Nathan Scheelhaase to beat us single-handedly, and he was unable to do so. The defensive line was able to generate a pass rush at the same time our secondary didn't allow receivers to get open.
By midway through the first quarter the offense was ready. Just as I said this is usually when the offense gets here to Mrs. T-Mill, Caleb TerBush led us on an impressive 90-yard TD drive. The play of the game came on Caleb's scramble and throw to Justin Siller. It wasn't pretty. TerBush looked like he had plenty of room to run for the first down but instead he lobbed a lame duck of a pass down field, by far his deepest throw of the season. The Illinois defender leapt for it, but it was just out of his reach. Siller was able to leap and bring it in, securing a huge first down on 3rd and 21.
For once, we were the team converting a 3rd and long, not giving it up. A few plays later, Siller scored, and the defense kept playing well. Raheem Mostert and Jared Crank followed with touchdowns, and in a span of roughly ten minutes we went from a 0-0 tie to an unexpected 21-0 lead. From there we played a mix of keep away and solid defense. We milked every possession for what it was worth without really coming close to scoring again, but the defense kept doing its job. For 50 minutes it looked like a shutout would happen and we'd have an unexpected easy win.
Well, if you think that's what happened you don't know Purdue football. I do, and I never felt comfortable even up 21 with the football in the fourth quarter at home. Everything nearly unraveled in the last eight minutes, but Siller was again there to grab the onside kick and secure the win.
It was far from a work of art, but it was a win over a ranked team. That's something we couldn't do until 2009. Now we have beaten a ranked team in each of the past three seasons (This statement is based on me thinking Northwestern was in the top 25 of one of the two polls when we beat them last year. If I am wrong, forget it). More importantly, it makes the bowl equation very simple now: Secure a split in the last two home games, beat Indiana, and go bowling. Anything else is a bonus.
Positives from the Illinois game:
Ricardo Allen - Ricardo showed today why he is one of the best corners in the Big Ten. If anything, he also showed just how good Michael Floyd is too. A.J. Jenkins came in on fire and, for the most part, Ricardo kept him in check. Even when challenged he picked off a deep Reilly O'Toole pass to end a scoring threat. His sure tackling also made sure Illinois took time off the clock as they were desperately trying to score.
Kawann Short - There is the warrior we have been expecting from Kawann. It seemed like as the game went on, Kawann gained more and more confidence. We haven't been disruptive along the defensive line all season long before today. The line formed a symbiotic relationship with the secondary, however, to cohesively lock them down until the 4th quarter. The pass rush was opened up by excellent coverage, and the coverge was helped by an improved pass rush. Credit the offense too, because them building a lead allowed our defensive line to go after Scheelhaaase when they knew he was in passing mode.
Gerald Gooden - He provided a momentum-turning first quarter sack.
Ryan Isaac - His big play was getting his hand up and batting down a throw over the middle. I want to see our D-line do this more.
Danny Hope - I'll say it: Hope outcoached Ron Zook today. Caleb was in a rhythm and Hope kept him in the game. That was key because it gave us continuity and Caleb wasn't looking over his shoulder. I like Robert Marve, but if we pick a guy and it is Caleb, I am 100% behind him. I am just glad we stuck with someone. Zook inexplicably pulled Scheelhaase for a series and it led to O'Toole throwing a pick. Hope and Gary Nord also mixed up the playbook with some Siller-cat plays. These plays have some serious potential, especially since TerBush is unguarded down the field. There is no harm in sending TerBush straight up the field and having Siller launch one his way. If anything, it would keep defenses honest. If he doesn't throw, it runs another defender off.
Back to hope, however. This was possibly his best coached game at Purdue. It was definitely his best of the year. Once we built a lead we didn't get to cute. We concentrated on taking care of the ball, working the clock, and keeping the Illinois offense off the field. For once, we did exactly what we needed to do.
Special Teams - The break on the botched punt was perfect. Pinning Illinois deep and making them go the length of the field (thus taking precious time off the clock) was even better.
Dwayne Beckford - Middle linebacker was a threat today. Thank you, Beckford.
Josh Johnson - His huge hit to break up a pass in the second or third quarter (I can't remember which) set the tone.
Offensive line - I have to give credit to the O-line for keeping TerBush relatively clean. Illinois had a nasty pass rush, but we looked better at causing pressure today.
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Negatives from the Illinois game:
Finishing - The truth about Purdue football is that we never make it easy, even with a three score lead at home and less than 10 minutes to play. If Jared Crank doesn't fall down tripping over his own feet we're in field goal range with under 5 minutes left and we likely hold the ball long enough to prevent Illinois from scoring again. I swear the final minutes of the game took five years off my life. I am leaving a do not resuscitate order if Purdue basketball kills me by sweating out a National Championship win.
I cannot stress how absolutely huge today's win was. All we need is to pull out two wins in the next five games and we get to go to a bowl game. Danny Hope even redeemed himself a little today. He's not going anywhere at the end of the season, so we might as well get behind him and support him the rest of this year. With a solid recruiting class coming in today might just be a turning point for the program. If we can scrape out two more wins we'll use the extra practices and bowl game to keep building. There is definitely enough there to give me some hope.
Our seniors have also never played in a bowl, either. We can't give up on them playing it the postseason for the first time in their careers. We have something to build for even this year now, and I feel like these seniors, especially guys like Joe Holland, can taste it.
Winning at Michigan will be tough, but stopping their offense is as simple as stopping Denard Robinson. It won't be easy, but he is their sole offensive threat. We've done well against him in the past, so let's keep it up. Winning at Wisconsin would be the shock of the season, but we should go up there with the attitude of, "They're keeping score, the fans are here, we're in uniform. Why not try to win?" I have the most confidence in beating Ohi State. I call them Ohi State because they lack an O. Their offense is putrid at best, and may even be worse than Penn State's. Iowa and Indiana are a little far off to think about, but neither of them look unbeatable.
So let's enjoy this one for a bit. Open up the trophy case and put The Cannon back in it. It's the first step toward something more.