What's worse than writing about Indiana football? Writing about Illinois football. Since the middle of the 2011 season the Fighting Illini have a single Big Ten win to their name. Of course, we're not doing a whole lot better in that department, so I don't have much room to talk. Jim Vainisi of SB Nation's the Champaign Room handles writing about the Illini with aplomb, and he stopped by to answer some questions about Illinois:
T-Mill: Is this Illinois team finally taking a step forward under Beckman or is it more of the same? Would a loss to Purdue, the only B1G team Beckman has beaten, really hurt his chances of staying on another year?
Jim: Honestly, I don't think the team has made any progress this year. Coming into the season 6 wins a bowl birth seemed to be the general expatiation of the fan base-If Beckman can't deliver that he's in trouble. Our AD Mike Thomas will have a hard time keeping him without those 6 wins, but I do think there's a scenario in which he could stay with 5 wins. A loss to Purdue would most likely test that theory.
T-Mill: Wes Lunt is expected to play and Purdue has actually seen him once before (he was 1 of 3 for Oklahoma State against Purdue in the Heart of Dallas Bowl). Does this help Purdue at all?
Jim: After sitting through 4 quarters of some Reilly O'Football last weekend, Wes Lunt is finally back for the Illini; I'm expecting him to have another huge day. In the 4 games that he's played, Lunt has thrown for nearly 1,250 yards and 11 TDs (3 INT). Purdue may have seen him in the past, but I doubt it gives them any sort of advantage; the 2 years and new offensive system have transformed him into a different player.
T-Mill: The run defense was notably gashed last week, but Purdue has struggled to run the ball for awhile now. Do you think Purdue can keep generating yards on the ground?
Jim: I'm still fearing Ameer after our last game-it was that bad. Abdullah would've had a legitimate shot at 400+ yards had he played the entire game. Our defensive line was getting zero separation (as well as blowing containment) so it was all up to our linebackers to fill those huge running lanes. They played a decent game, but the group isn't talented enough to make up for the DLine's mistakes on nearly every play.
As for Purdue, if they commit to the run early and often I'm sure they'll have some sort of success on the ground. It seems that our run defense either blows up a play at the line, or it ends up in a 6-8 yard gain-I don't expect anything different on Saturday.
T-Mill: Who are Lunt's main weapons and how has the Illini offense performed overall?
Jim: Our receiving core is relatively inexperienced, but Illinois hasn't had a group this talented in several years. JUCO transfer Geronimo Allison has become a legitimate downfield threat for Lunt; the 6-4 receiver is averaging over 100 yards/game thus far. The other player to keep an eye out for is freshman Mikey Dudek-we're B1G fans of him over at TCR. He catches EVERYTHING thrown to him out of the slot. I haven't been paying a whole lot of attention to other players in the conference, but I think he has a chance to be Freshman of the Year. Some other guys to look out for in the passing game are RB Josh Ferguson and freshman Malik Turner.
The offense's performance has been surprising so far. They've gotten off to slow starts in every game and the play calling has just been miserable for the most part-it's a complete 180 from last season. They're barely running the ball and most of our passes are either screens or short slants/curls-we're seeing almost nothing downfield. Hopefully Lunt and Co. start to turn things in the right direction this week.
T-Mill: Is this a case of the loser may be looking at an 0-fer in Big Ten play?
Jim: That could very well be the case. The way I see it, Illinois has 5 winnable B1G games in Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State, and @Northwestern. However if we lose on Saturday we may need to significantly reevaluate our chances in those contests. For Purdue on the other hand, this appears to be their best shot at a conference victory. The only other possible wins I see on the schedule are Northwestern and @Indiana.
T-Mill: Even last year, with a worse Purdue team, it was close. What is your pick for Saturday?
Jim: This is just going to be an awful, awful football game. I predict that Illinois will get off to another slow start on offense and that Purdue will be leading at halftime. It'll be a closer game than many expected, but I think the Illini manage to pull out yet another come-from-behind W. Illinois - 31 Purdue - 24