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Know Thy Opponent 2016: Illinois Fighting Illini

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One of the very few things Darrell Hazell has done at Purdue is win the Cannon. Can he do it again?

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Just as beating Illinois during the 2014 season was a sign of possible progress under Darrell Hazell, losing to them in 2015 was a sign of how much Hazell has ultimately failed spectacularly at his job. In 2014 Purdue went to Champaign and ran all over a bad Illinois team. Austin Appleby won his first career start, but Purdue broke big play after big play in winning 38-27. Purdue followed that with narrow losses at home to Michigan State and at Minnesota, but for the most part it looked like the win in Champaign was a turning point.

Purdue is just 2-16 since. It hasn't won on the road, and that same Illinois team that was not demonstrably better came to West Lafayette and crushed the Boilers 48-14 last season. Entering the game Illinois had the worst offense in terms of scoring in the conference. They had not scored more than 20 points in Big Ten play and their run game was pretty horrid. After 269 rushing yards in four games total in B1G play they ran for 383 yards.

It was one of four times last season hat Purdue was completely blown out at home by a mediocre (at best) team. Virginia Tech, Minnesota, Illinois, and Indiana all went either 6-6 of 5-7 in the regular season. We're not talking about a murder's row here. In all four games Purdue was completely embarrassed on its home field and had taken a clear step back from the promise of that win at Illinois in 2014.

This year's version of the Illini will be very similar. They aren't going to be great in year one under Lovie Smith, but they won't be abjectly horrible. that means we might actually win a game (or continue to embarrass ourselves).

Illinois Fighting Illini

2015 Record: 5-7, 2-6 Big Ten

Bowl result: None

Blog Representation: The Champaign Room

Series with Purdue: Illinois leads 44-41-6 (Purdue leads Cannon portion 33-28-2)

Last Purdue win: 10/4/2014 at Illinois 38-27

Last Illinois win: 11/7/2015 at Purdue 48-14

Head Coach: Lovie Smith (0-0 in 1st Season)

Last Season for the Fighting Illini:

Somehow, Illinois managed to fire two football coaches in a six month span. Tim Beckman was fired just before the season began, then Bill Cubit was fired by new AD Josh Whitman shortly after having the interim tag. That brings Lovie Smith into the fold, and he is a first time college head coach after a long time in the NFL.

On the field the Illini were not great. The Purdue victory was their lone win after a 4-1 start. That 4-1 start included beating up Kent State and Western Illinois by a combined 96-3. They survived Middles Tennessee State missing a field goal as time expired in a 27-25 win and beat Nebraska 14-13 on a late touchdown.

Basically, Purdue played them like Kent State and Western Illinois. This was an inconsistent-to-bad offense that didn't score more than 24 points against any Big Ten team not named Purdue. When you look at that it makes Purdue's home defeat look even more embarrassing.

Fighting Illini Offense

The Illinois offense was not very good for most of last year (unless it was playing Purdue) and many of the top performers are gone. Josh Ferguson and Geronimo Allison are gone after decent seasons, and Mikey Dudek is already injured with a torn ACL in the spring and will be out yet again. The offense will be primarily built around a good QB and running back tandem.

Wes Lunt has had the rare opportunity to play against Purdue in two different uniforms. He played briefly for Oklahoma State in the 2013 Heart of Dallas bowl, then last year for Illinois after initially transferring. He threw for 2,761 yards and 14 TDs last season against only six interceptions.

At running back another familiar name should play a lot. Ke'Shawn Vaughn was recruited heavily by Purdue but ended up in Champaign. As a freshman last season he ran for a team best 723 yards and 6 TDs. His best game was against Purdue, where he torched the Boilers for 180 yards and two scores on only 16 carries. This included a 78-yard TD run.

At receiver, the loss of Allison and Dudek hurts. Desmond Cain (53-492-1) and Malik Turner (39-510-3) provide some solid options, but Dudek was going to play a large role as a possession receiver. Justin Hardee, who missed last season with a broken foot, should also get plenty of time at receiver.

On the offensive line losing Ted Karras to the draft will hurt. He was a solid player to build around up front. The projected starters are extremely young with Gabe Megginson and Nick Allegretti projected to start as freshmen. Sophomore Christian DiLauro is also projected to start, making this one of the younger lines in the league.

Fighting Illini Defense

For the most part the Illinois defense wasn't that bad last year. They had some decent efforts in holding Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Iowa all under 30 points. The only teams to go over 30 against them were Minnesota and North Carolina. Unfortunately, many of the top performers are gone. The back seven is going to be absurdly inexperienced.

At linebacker T.J. Neal's transfer is a huge loss because he was the team's No. 2 tackler. The top three players in the secondary are also gone. Taylor Barton is the most experienced player in the secondary and the team's top returning tackler with 56 stops and four interceptions. Dawuane Smoot, who led the team with 8 sacks as kind of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end, is also back as a top performer.

One player that deserves to be mentioned is Jarrod "Chunky" Clements, just because a defensive linesman named "Chunky" is always worth a look. He finished with 35 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss last season. Both he and Smoot should provide a respectable pass rush, but this is a defense that has A LOT of questions entering the season.

Fighting Illini Special Teams

One of the biggest losses on special teams is return man V'Angelo Bentley. Not only was he a solid cornerback, he was a dangerous punt and kickoff returner. He averaged over nine yards per punt return and was always a threat to take a kickoff back.

In the kicking game Ryan Frain, who averaged 40 yards per punt, is back, but the Illini must break in a new kicker after Tayler Zalewski graduated. David Reisner is expected to get the job.

Game Outlook

A truly improved Purdue finds a way to win this game. Yes, even though Illinois beat the Boilers in 2015 by a bit, they still weren't great. Playing at Illinois is hardly an intimidating environment and the Illini are likely to battle the Boilers for the bottom of the West Division. Like Purdue, they have a handful of good players, but there are not all-B1G talents here. They are also in year one of a new coaching regime. The Lovie Smith effect may not truly be seen until year 2.

Much of this depends on what we see out of Purdue in the first three games of the season. Any Big Ten team with a pulse gets through that stretch at 2-1 minimum if not 3-0. The Boilers couldn't ask for a better beginning slate of games, especially with two Big Ten road games, but at Illinois and Maryland who are not expected to do much.

There are no excuses. If there is going to be any sort of turnaround under Darrell Hazell it has to start in this five game opening stretch with, at minimum. A 3-2 mark. I would say 5-0 because even the late tiller teams would go 5-0 against this type of stretch, but even at 3-2 we're asking for Hazell to double his FBS win total in only five games.

Prediction

The road team has won the last four games in this series, so why not keep it rolling? The Cannon comes home in an ugly, disjointed football game as Markell Jones has a career day running the ball. Purdue 24, Illinois 21