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Know Thy Opponent 2015: Illinois Fighting Illini

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We may be bad in the Big Ten, but we're not Illinois!

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Hey! A team we have beaten!

The last two seasons have been very, very rough for Purdue, especially against the Big Ten. We're a paltry 1-15 against the B1G under Darrell Hazell, but that one win came last season when Austin Appleby made his first career start. For one Saturday, instead of getting pushed around by the Big Ten. It was Purdue that did the pushing. Akeem Hunt ran for 117 yards and a TD. Appleby threw for 202 yards, ran for 76 yards, and had two TDs on the ground to go with a passing TD, and Danny Anthrop had 99 yards and a TD as Purdue won 38-27.

It certainly looked like the Illini were dead, but they recovered to actually make a bowl game while Purdue has not won since. Yes, it has been bad for Purdue, but Illinois has been consistently awful even with last year's bowl game and even in 2013 Purdue was right there before losing late. After a brutal opening stretch to Big Ten play this game marks a promising finishing kick where the Boilers get an Illinois team facing tons of off the field issues, A Northwestern team that missed a bowl game, a punchless Iowa team, and Indiana. That's about as easy of a final four games as you can ask for in the Big Ten. As long as Purdue can get to this point with three or more wins it could be in really good shape for a strong finish.

2014 Record: 6-7, 3-5 Big Ten

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

Last Season for the Fighting Illini

After losing to Purdue it looked as if Illinois would continue its futility in Big Ten play. The loss to Purdue made them a meager 1-23 in their previous 24 Big Ten contests, with the one victory coming over an abysmally awful Purdue team in 2013.They would lose to Wisconsin before stunning Minnesota 28-24 in Champaign. Wins over Penn State and Northwestern allowed them to barely squeeze into a bowl, where Louisiana Tech handled them pretty easily.

Does that mean Illinois is on an upswing? Well, not really. They are still 4-26 in their last 30 Big Ten games. They cannot run the ball or stop the run. There are some nice pieces there on both sides of the ball, but this is not a team that is going to make a huge leap to Big Ten contender. If anything, it is another struggle to get to 6-6 season. That means Purdue has to hold serve at home against a team it has already beaten and should beat again.

Illinois Offense

The good news is that the Illini have a decent quarterback, a respectable running back, and a very good receiver. The bad news is that there is not much else. Let's start at quarterback.

Wes Lunt played against Purdue in 2012 while at Oklahoma State, then was knocked out of last year's game in Champaign with a broken leg. When he was in he wasn't that bad. He threw for 1,763 yards and 14TDs against only 3 interceptions. He was as mobile as a statue, however, with -8 yards rushing and he was sacked 12 times in limited play. It appears as if he will be THE guy this season, but there are three freshmen behind him that might get a look including... Jeff George Jr. That's right. The son of former Purdue turncoat to Illinois is a freshman quarterback for the Illini. This fact alone needs to be added to the lore of the Purdue Cannon.

Lunt has a solid receiver in Mike Dudek, who was excellent last year with 76 receptions for 1,038 yards and 6 TDs. He already has the required Wes Welker comparisons for being a short white receiver, but he tore his ACL this spring and may not be back in time for the Purdue game. His absence leaves Geronimo Allison and Josh Ferguson as the top returning receivers, and Ferguson is the primary running back. He did catch 50 passes for 427 yards last year. Malik Turner and Justin Hardee should also be contributors.

At running back Ferguson is a feast or famine guy. He is very quick in open space and had 741 yards with 8 TDs last season, but could sometimes be contained. He also fumbled an eye-popping seven times. Beyond him there is a massive question mark, as there is not a single running back with so much as a single carry.

Speaking of question marks, the offensive line is a huge one with Ted Karras as the lone proven starter back. The senior has 31 starts at right guard, but the other four positions are in limbo. Joe Spencer, Christian DiLauro, Austin Schmidt, and Pat Flavin all have some starting experience, but they have to come in and be ready after four starters left last year. This is also not a huge, overpowering line like Wisconsin. Here is what Bill C. has to say:

While it's always difficult to separate a line's success from that of the people it's blocking for, Illinois' line stats were subpar in both run blocking and pass protection. To a degree, this makes sense: longtime starters Simon Cvijanovic (as you probably know) and Ted Karras both got hurt, and the Illini were forced to juggle personnel. It didn't help that line coach A.J. Ricker left Champaign for alma mater Missouri in the summer, which forced some juggling on the staff as well.

The line now must replace three players who had combined for 103 career starts, but with at least six juniors and seniors, plus three JUCO signees and a four-star freshman (Gabe Megginson), the components are there for a line that combines upside and some level of experience. This line might not be great, but with experience at both quarterback and running back as well, I would expect the line stats to improve.

Illinois Defense

The good news is that the pass defense was really, really good. The bad news is that it was so good because teams didn't need to pass against Illinois because the run defense was awful. Purdue ran for 349 yards and had several huge plays as Appleby, Hunt, Raheem Mostert, and even Keyante Green all broke runs of at least 40 yards. Purdue only had 202 yards passing (80 on a single play), but just did not need to throw very much.

The answer to beating Illinois is to run the ball, then run some more. Mason Monheim and T.J. Neal are okay linebackers, Mike Svetina is also back from injury, but this is a unit that was both pushed around and out of position by a Purdue line that often struggled to run block. The Champaign Room had an excellent breakdown of how bad the day was for them.

On the defensive line the Illini are down to hoping backups and a JuCo transfer can get it done:

If they can improve while highly touted backups like tackle Jarrod Clements, end Paul James III, and JUCO transfer Sean Adesanya begin to live up to their hype, Illinois could be pretty strong, especially considering the return of last year's top two linebackers (Mason Monheim and T.J. Neal) and 2013 contributor Mike Svetina, who missed 2014 with injury.

Of course, Ward, Smoot, Monheim, and Neal were all involved last year, too, and produced solid stats in the process. That didn't stop the whole from becoming less than the sum of the parts.

In the secondary there are, again, some good pieces in Taylor Barton, Eaton Spence, and V'Angelo Bentley, but when teams have no need to pass it doesn't matter if you have the best secondary on earth. The team generated just seven interceptions and no one in the secondary had more than one. It is just not going to matter if this unit is giving up 250 or more yards on the ground to anyone with a pulse.

Illinois Special Teams

Illinois lost one of the best punters in the Big Ten with Justin DuVernois graduating. His 44 ypp average and 20 punts downed inside the 20 helped the Illini defense at least a little. In the kicking game both David Reisner and Taylor Zalewski struggled with consistency in splitting duties. They combined to go 1 of 6 from beyond 40 yards on field goals and both missed a pair of extra points. As a team Illinois was only 9 of 17 on field goals.

In the return game V'Angelo Bentley and Darius Mosley split both punt and kickoff duties. They were... not great.

Game Outlook

This is a game Purdue has to win. We beat Illinois last year, they are not going to be a lot better, and if there is any improvement at all from Purdue it has to show by beating the few teams we should be able to beat, like Illinois. By the time they come to Ross-Ade they could be a dead team walking. A 3-1 non-conference record is practically a gimme with home games against Kent State, Western Illinois, and Middle Tennessee, but they could easily be 0-4 in the league with bowl hopes on life support. Illinois hosts Nebraska and Wisconsin while going to Iowa and Penn State.

For Purdue, the Illinois game last season might be the best a Darrell Hazell coached team has looked. The offense saw a glaring weakness (the run defense) and exploited it repeatedly. The defense struggled on third downs, but got some key stops when needed and pitched a 4th quarter shutout. It did not matter as much because Purdue averaged almost 8 yards every time it rushed the football, and that was actually taken down when you consider Appleby had a pair of 1-yard TD runs. Also, many of Purdue's runs could have been longer had that pesky end zone not gotten in the way.

I can see Purdue doing more of the same. The boilers should run the football until the Illini prove they cans top it. They have been unable to do so for many years now, so why believe that will change? I am concerned that Purdue gave up 450 yards passing last season, but 200 went to Dudek, who may not be 100% by game time.

Prediction

The Cannon stays home. This is a key game because it kicks off a very friendly closing stretch where Purdue probably needs to win 3 of 4 to go bowling again. I think we get it done at home. Purdue 31, Illinois 20