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Know Thy Opponent 2013: Illinois Fighting Illini

Purdue has won the Cannon for two years in a row. can they make it three.


We're almost done with the 12 team previews on the 2013 football schedule. We'll finish next week just before Big Ten Media Days in Chicago with Indiana, but unfortunately I won't be able to attend this year. The hassle of that thing called "a real job" prevents me from being able to go this year and No one was available to go in my stead.

Today is all about Illinois, however, as Purdue finishes the 2013 like it did last year: with consecutive trophy games:

2012 Record: 2-10, 0-8 Big Ten

Bowl result: None

Blog Representation: The Champaign Room

Series with Purdue: Illinois leads 42-40-6 (Purdue leads The Cannon portion 32-27-2)

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

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

Last Season for the Fighting Illini

Year one of the Tim Beckman era was pretty much a disaster. After going 7-6 and winning a bowl game despite firing Ron Zook Illinois finished dead last in the conference as the only team to not win a league game. The offense was among the worst in the nation, rating 122nd out of 124 FBS teams at only 16.7 points per game. The defense gave up 32.1 per game and the passing game was abysmal at only 168.8 yards per game.

There were just two bright spots, really. Illinois opened the season with a 24-7 win over Western Michigan that looked pretty good at the time, but the Broncos finished 4-8 despite bowl expectations. Illinois also crushed Charleston Southern 44-0.

Aside from that it was bad. In eight of 10 losses Illinois gave up over 30 points, holding only Minnesota and Purdue below 10. Northwestern, Ohio State, and Louisiana Tech each cracked 50 points while Arizona State and Michigan got over 40. The only opponent Illinois scored more than 20 points than in Big Ten play was Ohio State, and that took a 77-yard fumble return with just under five minutes left to get there.

For Illinois to have any success in 2013 the offense has to find what was working in the first half of 2011. They enter this year on a 14 game conference losing streak in which their best game offensively was that Ohio State loss 52-22.

Illinois Offense

As a freshman Nathan Scheelhaase looked like he was going to be a great quarterback in this Big Ten. He was a dual-threat that could get it done both on the ground and through the air. As a freshman he threw for 1,825 yards and 17 TDs against only eight interceptions and rushed for 868 more and five scores. Last season he was a shell of himself. Yes, he missed the Arizona State and Charleston Southern games, but in 10 games he threw for only 1,361 yards and just four touchdowns against eight interceptions. His running was limited to 303 yards and four scores.

Now there is a bit of a quarterback controversy as Reilly O'Toole could see more playing time. O'Toole had 564 yards passing and six scores against four picks, but five of those TDs and 333 yards came in the Charleston Southern game. While O'Toole only started two games he did see time in seven total, and his passing TD total in one game was half what the Illini had as a team all year.

Not all of the problems can be laid on the quarterbacks. When your top receiver in Ryan Lankford (37-469-5) spent time as a punter in 2011 it is never a good sign, though Cody Webster was also a receiver in high school. Lankford was the only player with more than 400 yards receiving and is back for his senior season. Donovonn Young (38-172-1) led the team in receptions as a running back, but clearly had few yards after the catch. Josh Ferguson (29-251-0), Spencer Harris (21-252-2), and Justin Hardee (17-192-0) are all at least back as the top receivers, but is that a good thing when this was one of the worst passing offenses in the nation a year ago? Another top receiver, Darius Millines (32-319-0), was thrown off the team too.

The running game was not much better with Young leading the way on 571 yards and three scores. Ferguson had 312 yards with no scores, but that left Scheelhaase as the No. 3 rusher at 303 yards. As a team Illinois had barely more than 1,500 yards and only 12 touchdowns on the ground.

This puts a ton of pressure on new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who comes to Champaign after being the head coach at Western Michigan. Cubit was the coach for the Broncos who were pass-happy in the 2011 Little Caesar's Bowl against us, so there is a history there of competent offenses. He also has head coaching experience in the event Beckman continues to struggle and is canned midseason.

A large problem with Illinois was a porous offensive line that gave up 39 sacks a year ago and 97 tackles for loss. Ted Karras, Alex Hill, and Michael Heitz have experience as starters on the line, but you have to think that a poor performance last year followed by a house-cleaning of assistants could make the O-line situation very fluid.

Of special note on Karras: His great uncle is a former Boilermaker and player for the Washington Redskins. His other great uncle is the famous Outland Trophy winner at Iowa, Alex Karras, also known as Webster's (the TV show, not our punter) dad.

Illinois Defense

The Illinois defense only had one player even make the all-big ten lists last season, as Michael Buchanan was a Second team selection by the coaches. He is off to the NFL, however, as a seventh round selection by the Patriots.

What's left is a defense that gave up almost 200 yards on the ground per game and just about the exact same amount through the air. Akeem Shavers and Ralph Bolden ran for 192 combined yards and it would have been over 200 had Bolden not pulled a hamstring and was forced to come up lame on a big run. Mason Monheim was a promising young linebacker with a team-high 86 tackles and an interception as a freshman. He was twice the league's Freshman of the Week and was even a Second Team Freshman All-American by Phil Steele. Paired with Jonathan Brown, the Illini have two pretty good linebackers.

The defensive line has a ton of question marks after losing Akeem Spence, who declared early for the NFL Draft, and Buchanan. Glenn Foster also graduated, leaving Tim Kynard as the only returning starter. Houston Bates brings some experience, but this is a unit that didn't generate a great pass rush and lost its best players.

The less said about the Illinois secondary, the better. The team had just seven team interceptions last year with Steve Hull grabbing a team-high two. Both starting corners are also gone with Terry Hawthorne off to the Steelers.

Illinois will be a work in progress defensively. Three of 11 starters were draft picks, but it still was not a great defense last season. It is hard to see them getting better with those losses. The defense also lost captain Ashante Williams, who had a pair of defensive scores.

Illinois Special Teams

Like Purdue, Illinois split kickers last season. Nick Immekus and Taylor Zalewski each made four field goals and were a combined 8-12, but the offense was so bad it often couldn't even get them into range for and attempt. Zalewski had good range with a 54-yard kick against Purdue, so he may have the edge.

Justin DuVernois handled punting duties and had lots of practice with 73 kicks for a 41.9 yard average. He should be one of the league's better specialists. Illinois generated pretty much nothing in the return game with Lankford doing most of the work on kick returns.

Game Outlook

When a team goes winless in the Big Ten everyone looks at that team the next season and sees that game as a win. In that regard Minnesota, Michigan, and Iowa have to feel left out as the teams that don't get Illinois on the schedule. From a Purdue perspective I admit that this is a game that has to be a win. Both teams have a lot of the same talent back, but Purdue made an upgrade in coaching after winning on the road last season.

Still, most project this game as a battle for last place in the Leaders Division. Illinois is in the same boat as Purdue where any bowl game would be viewed as a surprise, and they face a similarly tough non-conference schedule. They host Cincinnati and Washington in addition to the FCS team (Southern Illinois) and glorious MACtion (Miami).

For Purdue, I can see this game being like last year, where Purdue came in at 4-6 with no margin for error in terms of making a bowl game. Illinois has a brutal opening slate of at Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michgan State, and at Penn State in their first four Big Ten games in addition to those tough non-conference games. With a game also against Ohio State they are going to need at least on upset to be at 4-6, and that is with them beating an improved Indiana team and not slipping up against Miami or Southern Illinois.

Illinois is the Jekyl and Hyde team of the league, as they have been to two BCS Bowls but have had four 0-8 Big Ten seasons, three 1-7 seasons, and four 2-6 Big Ten seasons since 1996. That's a dismal 11-77 record in 11 of the past 17 league seasons.


Purdue is not going to a bowl game if it loses to the Fighting Illini. The loser is likely going to be the worst team in the conference and I don't trust a team to suddenly get better with wholesale coaching changes after 14 straight league games of absolutely putrid offense. If you can score 20 on Illinois right now you will beat them. It is that simple.

Purdue can score 20. Purdue 24, Illinois 14