I am going to take a bold stance about Saturday's game in Champaign: It is a virtual must win for the entire Hazell Era.
The Fighting Illini, despite having a 3-2 overall record, have floundered greatly under Tim Beckman. Since he took over the Illini is just 9-20, but his Big Ten record is even worse at 1-16. In fact, if you go back to the end of the Ron Zook era the Illini are 1-22 in their last 23 games against Big Ten competition.
That one victory came almost a year ago now, at Ross-Ade Stadium, when Illinois limped past Purdue 20-16 in a brutally ugly game from both sides. As bad as Purdue was, I feel like this was a game we let get away from us. The Boilers were unable to take advantage of a horrid Illinois defense that somehow kept us scoreless the final three quarters after taking an early 14-7 lead. To me, this was the worst offensive performance of the year for Purdue. That Purdue couldn't move on Illinois when everyone else had was quite embarrassing. Eventually, the Illini broke a 14-14 halftime with two fourth quarter field goals and an interception by V'Angelo Bentley in Illinois territory with a minute left sealed the deal.
Neither team is much better this year, so Saturday is a measure to see how much better each team is. For Purdue, The Boilers probably are not winning another game in 2014 unless it can beat Illinois. A victory closes the first half of the season at 3-3, which for many was seen as a best case scenario. It also would end a nine-game losing streaking in B1G play.
Who to Watch on Offense:
Wes Lunt - Quarterback - Lunt missed last week with an injury, but he is expected to return this week. That's a very good thing for the Illini, as he saved them with some second half heroics against Western Kentucky and Youngstown State. He is throwing for over 300 yards per game and has 11 TDs against only three interceptions. According to the Champaign Room, Lunt is pretty much the reason Illinois is not winless right now.
We have seen Lunt before, too. In the 2013 Heart of Dallas Bowl massacre Lunt got into the game and completed 1 of 3 passes for 12 yards. He since transferred from Oklahoma State and so far is thriving in the pass-first offense Illinois likes to run.
Lunt pretty much is the definition of a pocket passer. He has 9 rushing attempts for -44 yards so he is not much of a threat to run. If given time, he can pick you apart. He has completed two thirds of his passes and is already well over 1,200 yards despite missing the entire Nebraska game.
Mike Dudek - Wide Receiver - Dudek leads the Illini with 25 catches for 339 yards and three touchdowns. He has been a surprising true freshman as a smaller receiver, but he is good at getting open and getting the yards he needs.
Josh Ferguson - Running Back - Purdue has played relatively well against the run in each of the past two weeks, but it will be tested by a versatile running back in Ferguson. Last season Ferguson had 115 yards on 20 carries against Purdue. This year he has 377 yards and four TDs to go with 15 catches for 154 more yards and two scores. Illinois is not a strong running team, but Ferguson and Donovonn young can move the ball on the ground while still being available out of the backfield in the passing game. Overall Illinois ranks 114th in the nation in rushing.
Geronimo Allison - Wide Receiver - Allison is a big receiver at 6'4" that could be a third down matchup nightmare. He transferred in from a junior college and has had a nice start with 21 catches for 418 yards and three scores. While usually it is a tight end wandering across the middle of the field on third and long, it looks like Allison will fill that role this week.
Who to Watch on Defense:
Front Seven - Allow me to make this as clear as possible for coach Hazell, John Shoop, our players, and anyone else that might be involved offensively this weekend: RUN. THE. FOOTBALL. AT. WILL. UNTIL. THEY. STOP. YOU. Illinois is AWFUL against the run, giving up 229.6 yards per game on the ground. That's bad when you consider they only played Ameer Abdullah once. They have given up 1,304 yards and 10 TDs on the ground in the first five games. Only Fresno State and Bowling Green are worse, and Bowling Green gets an exemption for facing Tevin Coleman followed by Wisconsin. Illinois has proven to be physically incapable of stopping the run. If Purdue goes away from establishing and maintaining a strong ground game the coaching staff is ridiculously foolish and, quite honestly, trying to lose. This is not rocket science (and even if it was, we're Purdue. We OWN rocket science).
Jihad Ward - Defensive Line - Illinois tries to mix up different blitz packages and Ward is one of the more successful players with a pair of sacks and 20 tackles.
Taylor Barton - Safety - Barton is to Illinois as Landon Feichter is to Purdue. The experienced safety has a 77-yard interception return and leads them with 54 tackles.
Mason Monheim - Linebacker - Monheim is second on the team with 51 tackles and was a second-team freshman All-American last season. He finished the year last season ninth in the Big Ten in tackles per game.
Who to Watch on Special Teams
Justin DuVernois - Punter - He is averaging almost 45 yards per punt, which is pretty damn good. He doesn't down too many inside the 20, however with only 4 out of 29 pinning teams deep.
Kickoff Specialists - Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert might finally get a chance to return some kickoffs this week as the Illini have tried three different kickoff specialists, but no one can get touchbacks with regularity. Most teams have taken this part of the game away from Purdue.
V'Angelo Bentley - Last year's closer is a dangerous returner, especially against a team that has struggled so greatly on kickoff coverage. Bentley returns both kickoffs and punts.
It really might be as simple as "run the ball" on them. Here are the rushing totals given up in the first five games for Illinois:
Youngstown State - 203 yards
Western Kentucky - 103 yards
Washington - 245 yards
Texas State - 139 yards (gave up 336 passing)
Nebraska - 458 yards
This is not a good defense. If Purdue struggles as much as it did against Iowa the final six games are not going to be much fun. This is the week to get the offense on track, especially the running game. If Danny Etling starts he shouldn't attempt more than 20 passes. It should be handoff, after handoff, after handoff. It's not like the non-Nebraska teams here are rushing powerhouses either. Yes, the Cornhuskers skew things a bit, but not that much, really.
Defensively, the Purdue secondary is going to be tested because Illinois has almost as much of an aversion to running the ball as they do in stopping it. Lunt is going to fling the ball around and it is up to us to stop them. If the defense can start strong like last week, get some stops, and the offense gives them an assist with a few scores the Illini will run even less. That gives the decent Purdue pass rush free reign to get after Lunt. Illinois has given up 13 sacks, so the line isn't great.
As I said in the beginning, this has to be a win. It could have been a win last year and Purdue was far, far worse than it is now. We're still a double-digit underdog, which is honestly an insult because Illinois shouldn't be favored by 10 over anyone. The key, as always, is the Purdue offense. If it is a complete no show we're not going to beat anyone, anyway.
Keys to the game:
- Run the ball
- RUN THE BALL
- No, Seriously, RUN THE F*@&%$# FOOTBALL
- Be prepared to stop the pass