The Cannon has at least been a constant in West Lafayette of late, even more so than the Old Oaken Bucket. Since 2002 Purdue has won 8 of the last 10 meetings with Illinois, losing only 44-10 in 2010 during one of the worst coached games I have ever seen and 20-16 in 2013 in one of the biggest cripplefights in Big Ten history. Seriously, 2013 was bad. Purdue would finish 1-11 as one of the worst Big Ten teams ever. Illinois entered the game on 20-game losing streak in Big Ten play, one of the longest in decades.
Because of Purdue's recent dominance the Boilers have closed the gap in the overall series to 41-43-6 and they lead the Cannon portion 33-27-2. Purdue has not held a lead in the overall series with Illinois since 1902, so if it continues Purdue can get ahead of a Big Ten opponent for once. Right now Purdue only leads Indiana, Iowa, and Northwestern in terms of the overall series and they are tied with Nebraska.
There is a good chance Purdue can get within one, too. This Illinois team has struggled since entering Big Ten play and after a hot start they have reverted to being Illinois. A Purdue victory combined with a Northwestern loss would vault the Boilermakers into a shocking tie for 3rd place in the West Division too.
2015 Record: 4-4, 1-3 Big Ten
2014 Bowl result: Lost Heart of Dallas Bowl 35-18 to Louisiana Tech
Blog Representation: The Champaign Room
Series with Purdue: Illinois leads 43-41-6 (Purdue leads The Cannon portion 33-27-2)
Last Purdue win: 10/4/2014 at Illinois 38-27
Last Illinois win: 11/23/2013 at Purdue 20-16
Purdue has an excellent change here because as bad as Purdue has been offensively, the Illini are far worse. In conference play they have scored a paltry 47 points in four games. Purdue had more than that midway through the fourth quarter against Nebraska. Their 4-4 record is built on beating up Kent State and Western Illinois while surviving against Middle Tennessee State. They also had a stunning comeback win over Nebraska to win 14-13 on a TD in the final ten seconds.
Since then, the Illini have done very little. They challenged Iowa 29-20, but lost 24-13 at home against Wisconsin before not even bothering to show up at Penn State in a 39-0 blowout. The numbers against the Nittany Lions were, in a word, brutal. They completed just 17 of 44 passes for 130 yards. On 27 rushing attempts they had 37 yards for a grand total of 167 yards and 12 first downs. They had as many first downs as punts.
When you delve into the season-long numbers there are some even more promising statistics if you're a Purdue fan. Purdue has struggled to stop the run (except recently), but Illinois simply cannot run at all. The Illini ranked 119th nationally on the ground at 114.6 yards per game and only 2.9 per carry. In conference play they are even worse at 67 yards per game which is the worst in the Big Ten by a wide margin. The passing game has not made up the difference, either, ranking 54th at 243.4 yards per game.
Who to Watch on Offense
Ke'Shawn Vaughn - RB - It could be a good day for freshman running backs as Vaughn, whom Purdue recruited hard, has had some good moments this year. He has 485 yards and 4 TDs on the ground after Josh Ferguson has had to miss a bunch of time. Ferguson is questionable, and basically the Illini are so bad at running the ball that Vaughn is their lone threat.
Wes Lunt - QB - Lunt has not been terrible. He has 1,831 yards and 9 TDs against only four interceptions, but much of that came early in the year. In Big Ten play he has 3 TD passes and none in the last two games. With -94 yards rushing on the season the Boilermaker statue outside Ross-Ade is probably more of a threat to run than Lunt. If Purdue can get pressure Lunt is not one to escape it easily, but he has only been sacked 6 times.
Geronimo Allison - WR - The Illini are a team where they have one primary option on almost every passing down and that is Allison. His 52 receptions is almost twice as many as the No. 2 guy in Desmond Cain, and his 734 yards receiving is more than the next three rece3ivers combined. Allison can be a big play threat too with a 53 yard reception, but if Purdue can contain him the Illini offense will be stopped.
Really, this is about containing two guys: Vaughn and Allison. They are the only two players that have moved the ball with any sort of consistency for Illinois. Marchie Murdock has three touchdown receptions, but he didn't even catch a pass at Penn State.
Who to Watch on Defense
Last season Purdue ran all over the Illini. The 349 rushing yards is one of the best days on the ground in Purdue football history. From what I can research it is at least the best day since Purdue ran for 407 yards on Northwestern in 2002. The Illini aren't as bad against the run as they were last year, but they aren't a brick wall, either. Markell Jones should have some space compared to the last two stout run defenses. Also remember: Purdue ran for quite a bit against Nebraska when the day was done.
The pass defense is also respectable with 205.3 yards per game given up, but these numbers, both passing and rushing, are skewed somewhat from having given up just three points total in the first two games. That's a quarter of our statistical sample. In conference play Illinois is giving up 180 yards on the ground and 216 through the air.
Dawuane Smoot - DE - Smoot has been an effective pass rusher with a team high 6 sacks for 51 yards. Half of those has been in Big Ten play.
Clayton Fejedelem - DB - Fejedelem is a walk-on who transferred from NAIA St. Xavier and has excelled this year, leading the Illini with 87 tackles. He also has a pair of interceptions and a forced fumble.
Taylor Barton - DB - Both he and Eaton Spence have three interceptions to lead the Illini pass defense. They can be an effective tandem in pass defense, but given Illinois' struggled to stop the run in conference play I suspect Purdue will be running the ball a bit more this week.
Who to Watch on Special Teams
Taylor Zalewski - K - Zalewski has been effective this year, at least moreso than Paul Griggs. He is 10 of 15 with a long of 51 yards, so Illinois has an advantage here.
V'Angelo Bentley - PR, KR - Bentley can be very dangerous in the return game. He has a 48 yard punt return and he has been decent on kickoffs too. It should be noted that Illinois has blocked two punts and taken them back for touchdowns.
When the season started the Illinois game looked like an oasis after a tough starting stretch. I think I even said that if Purdue could get to this game with just two wins it had at least a chance at a bowl game. Well, I did not expect Iowa and Northwestern to be as good as they are (I also didn't think Purdue would give away wins over Marshall and Bowling Green), but Illinois is pretty bad. They are a bizarre coaching decision by Nebraska from being winless in league play. They have absolutely no running game and Purdue has been surprisingly strong against the run in recent weeks.
If Purdue really did turn a corner last week this needs to be a win. Illinois is a team the Boilers beat last year and playing at home against a fading Illini squad is exactly what is needed for Purdue to keep momentum moving forward. Yes, the chances of going to a bowl game this year are very small, but if we're already playing for next year it is time to start winning the games we should win to give the returning players some confidence. This is one of them.
Darrell Hazell might have saved his job last week with a win over Nebraska. A win this week sets Purdue up for a strong finish, as it would go into Evanston next week with momentum and there is still the Bucket game at home. It really is a case of can Purdue handle and build on success. Last year, after its lone conference win, it was unable to do so. If it does this week we might actually be coming out of this dark period.