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Illinois at Purdue Preview

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It’s the battle for the Cannon, the one trophy Purdue has won the last five years.

Illinois v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Purdue has not won a game in the month of November in 5 years.

It’s true. Look it up. Purdue beat Indiana 56-35 on November 24, 2012 and has not won a game later than October 31st in any season since:

November 2, 2013 vs. Ohio State L 56-0

November 9, 2013 vs. Iowa L 38-14

November 16, 2013 at Penn State L 45-21

November 23, 2013 vs. Illinois L 20-16

November 30, 2013 at Indiana L 56-36

November 1, 2014 at Nebraska L 35-14

November 8, 2014 vs. Wisconsin L 34-16

November 22, 2014 vs. Northwestern L 38-14

November 29, 2014 at Indiana L 23-16

November 7, 2015 vs. Illinois L 48-14

November 14, 2015 at Northwestern L 21-14

November 21, 2015 at Iowa L 40-20

November 28, 2015 vs. Indiana L 54-36

November 5, 2016 at Minnesota L 44-31

November 12, 2016 vs. Northwestern L 45-17

November 19, 2016 vs. Wisconsin L 49-20

November 26, 2016 at Indiana L 26-24

That is an indictment of the Darrell Hazell era. He could at least win a handful of games in September and October (a slightly more respectable 9-20 in those months), but as the season wore on, injuries mounted, and depth became a concern Purdue fell off a cliff. In only four games (2013 Illinois, 2014 Indiana, 2015 Northwestern, and 2016 Indiana) did Purdue play its opponent within a score. It is not like we were playing powerhouses, either. Only 2016 Wisconsin, 2015 Northwestern, 2014 Wisconsin, and 2013 Ohio State went on to win 10 games. Seven of the 17 teams went on to finish with a losing record, including all four Indiana teams.

Now, after a promising start, Purdue has lost three games in a row by 11 points total. It has been close to victory, but unable to finish key drives each week. The last two opponents especially sting because Purdue was favored, but couldn’t pull out the victory. Now we get a team that by almost every metric is the worst in the Big Ten. It lost to both of our last two opponents by double digits. It features the worst offense in the conference (and one of the worst in the country) by most metrics and they play a ton of younger players trying to gain experience.

This is a game Purdue needs to win by any means. First, we need the confidence of scoring more points than another team. Looking up at the scoreboard and just seeing a win would help this team immensely right now. Second, the November streak has to end some time, and we’re not going to get an easier opponent this season to do it against. Third, well, EVEN DARRELL HAZELL COULD BEAT ILLINOIS! HE DID IT TWICE!

Illinois Fighting Illini

2016 Record: 3-9, 2-7 Big Ten

2017 Record: 2-6, 0-5 Big Ten

Bowl Result: None

Blog Representation: The Champaign Room

Series with Purdue: Illinois leads 44-42-6

Last Purdue win: 34-31 at Illinois on 10/8/2016

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

Head Coach: Lovie Smith (5-15 in second year at Illinois)

When J.D. Dellinger split the uprights in overtime last season for a 34-31 victory it was the last happy moment of the Hazell era. It likely saved Darrell’s job for another week, but another dispirited and completely unprepared effort a week later finished him off. Still, as bad as Purdue was last season (and it was pretty bad) it managed to come together and win at Illinois.

And that is why we need to win this one. That Illinois team was likely better than this year’s team. It won a pair of conference games over Michigan State and Rutgers. It had somewhat of a passing game (until we broke Wes Lunt). It’s defensive front four was pretty stout and was even a grave concern coming into last season’s game.

This year? Well, the Illini are punchless. Their passing game is one of the worst int he Big Ten. They average only 189 yards through the air. Of course, they entered the 2015 game as the worst rushing team in the conference and we promptly gave up 382 yards on the ground, but that was a different coaching staff. I am confident that this staff can prepare for a passing offense that barely rates above triple-option teams even though Tanner Lee just torched us.

The run offense is not much better at 120.6 yards per game, worst in the conference. Overall only Rutgers is worse offensively at 288 total yards per game, while Illinois is at 309.6. Rutgers still scores more, as the Illini are at a paltry 17.3 points per game to Rutgers’ 21.5. Illinois is 121st nationally in scoring, ahead of only Kent State, UTEP, Rice, Charlotte, Texas St., San Jose State, and the two most disappointing teams in America: BYU and Florida State.

Who to Watch on Offense

Jeff George Jr. – QB – Yes, he is the son of THAT Jeff George, the malcontent ex-QB of the Colts and Purdue. The redshirt sophomore has emerged as the best option at quarterback after playing in four games last season. He became the starter mostly because Chayce Crouch was completely unable to pass the ball. George has been better, but not by much. He is 79 of 148 on the year for 1,001 yards and 4 TDs against 7 INTs. An important factor for a Purdue defense that has not forced a turnover in two straight games: Three Illinois quarterbacks have combined to throw 14 interceptions against only 5 touchdowns. George did not throw a pick the last two weeks, but threw two against both South Florida and Rutgers and three against Iowa. Last week Wisconsin held him to 7 completions and 108 yards passing.

Ra’Von Bonner – RB – Mike Epstein, the leading rusher for the Illini, was lost for the season after the Rutgers game and Bonner missed the Wisconsin game. Combined they have 548 yards and 7 TDs out of 1,186 yards and 9 TDs total on the ground. Illinois is the worst rushing team in the conference and we just held Nebraska, the team just ahead of them, to 40 yards on the ground. The Illini may be missing their top two backs, and the next two leading rushers are quarterbacks that don’t play.

Ricky Smalling – WR – If George can get them the ball, Illinois does have some decent receivers. Smalling leads the team with 23 receptions for 369 yards and 2 TDs. Mikey Dudek has been effective in the slot for 24 receptions for 262 yards and a score. Malik turner also had a big game against Purdue last season. He has 25 receptions for 255 yards. The passing offense only averages 189 yards per game.

Who to Watch on Defense

Purdue has had success running the ball the last two weeks, improving to 153.1 yards per game on the ground. It should have success this week, too. Illinois has the worst run defense in the conference by a wide margin at 205.4 yards per game. Last week they surprisingly held Wisconsin to 168 yards on the ground, but Rutgers hit them for 274 yards and 5 TDs. The same Nebraska team we just held to 40 yards went for 165 on them. The pass defense has been okay at 190.8 yards per game (6th in the Big Ten), but this is a very porous run defense.

Bobby Roundtree – DL – Purdue’s offensive line is a mess right now with Grant Hermanns out and Roundtree leads the Illini with 3 sacks and 32 overall tackles. Overall they have generated 14 sacks while giving up 23 (second worst in the league).

Del’Shawn Phillips – LB – The junior linebacker leads the team with 59 overall tackles and four tackles for loss. He can also get into the backfield as he has a sack on the season. Look for him to be all over the field.

Bennett Williams – DB – Williams has the most interceptions on the team with two. Overall the Fighting Illini have picked off just seven passes.

Who to Watch on Special Teams

Chase McLaughlin – K – McLaughlin has been good for the Illini, hitting on 11 of 15 field goal attempts with a long of 43. He did miss the game-winner last season against Purdue to send the game to overtime.

Game Outlook

This has to be a win. Okay, I have said that the last two weeks, but this is a team that is a significant step below the two that just barely beat us. For the first time this year a loss would be a significant step back. The Illini are a young team that struggles to score points at all. They have scored only 15 total touchdowns in 8 games. By comparison, Purdue has struggled to score touchdowns, going with one in a two-game span, and we still have 23.

The last couple of weeks the defense has mostly played well enough to win. It certainly did at Rutgers and Wisconsin, while it was given a shot to close out against Nebraska and faltered. Still, we have had four games holding opponents under 20 points this season and only once, against Louisville, did we give up more than 30. By comparison, the defense gave up more than 30 points eight times a season ago, including a Ross-Ade record 62 to Penn State.

So we have a suddenly good defense going against a very, very bad offense. That should work, but we had what happened in Piscataway happen. I am confidence the defense will do its job, but the offense must finish drives in the end zone and get back some of those early results from Ohio and Missouri.

And finally I have to say it again: EVEN DARRELL HAZELL BEAT THESE GUYS WHEN THEY WERE BETTER. That alone speaks volumes. Purdue obviously has issues with depth and talent, but we’re still a better football team this season and Illinois is probably worse. That’s why a loss would be disappointing on Saturday. We’re not going to get a better chance to fix our offensive issues the rest of the year. The defense is not going to get a more favorable matchup. A win needs to happen.