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Know thy Opponent 2017: Illinois Fighting Illini

A game against a team Purdue has actually beaten!

NCAA Football: Illinois at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s face it: the last four years of Purdue football have sucked, but Illinois has made it hurt at least a little less. Darrell Hazell might have been 9-33 at Purdue, 3-34 against the Big Ten, and a dismal 2-14 on the road, but when it came to the Illini they were his equal. He was at least 2-2 against Illinois, and he never lost at Illinois’ Memorial Stadium. Considering that he lost virtually everywhere else, 2-0 in Champaign is a triumph.

Of course, let’s not have any illusions that the Illini are some college football powerhouse that he had a bizarre hex over. They are 18-31 the last four years. When they beat Purdue in 2013 by a 20-16 score it broke a 20-game Big Ten losing streak. They are 8-25 over the last four seasons in conference play, beating Purdue twice, a moribund Rutgers team last year, and the worst Michigan State team in recent memory. As good as Hazell’s wins over the Illini felt, they returned the favor by winning twice in West Lafayette. The 20-16 game in 2013 was the essence of a cripplefight, while the 48-14 beatdown they handed out in 2015 was probably the moment that Darrell Hazell was lost for good.

That 2015 game was terribly frustrating. Purdue, already with a strong of blowout home losses, actually came in with some momentum after beating Nebraska a week earlier. The Illini had perhaps the worst rushing offense in the country. Here is what I wrote after that game:

Not only did Shoop and Hudson screw it up, they screwed it up so completely that you really have to wonder if they were on the take or something. The Illini entered today dead last in rushing in Big Ten play. They were averaging barely more than 67 yards per game, but with one performance for 382 yards (far more than they had gained in the previous four Big Ten games) They almost DOUBLED their rushing average in Big Ten play. So, great job, Hudson!

Not to be outdone, John Shoop had a great offensive plan that saw Purdue gain 22 yards in their first five possessions. Early on, the Illinois defensive line was pushing around Purdue's front line, and the Boilers did absolutely nothing to combat it. David Blough was as well protected as Jim Bob in Michelle Duggar with a broken condom, and the rush against him was 19 hits and counting. He never had time to throw and Markell Jones rarely had any holes to exploit. Before the last drive of the first half, after 6 ineffective possessions where not a single adjustment was made, Purdue had two first downs and roughly 40 yards.

Completing the trinity of ineptitude was fearless leader Darrell Hazell. After scoring Purdue might have actually had some momentum. It was still a 20-7 game and the Illini have shown that that was far from insurmountable over the years. Illinois got the ball back on their own 28 yard line and, knowing they would get the ball to start the second half, were content to run out the clock. They ran a simple run for four yards with no intent to score and Hazell called a timeout.

It was bad. Really bad. That’s why this game is so important for Purdue this year. Most people are in agreement that Jeff Brohm is a massive upgrade. Purdue somehow managed to beat this team last year on its home field and they won’t be demonstrably better. Purdue has got to win this game at home or it will feel like a step back when we don’t really have many steps back to take.

Illinois Fighting Illini

2016 Record: 3-9, 2-7 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 (3-9 in second year at Illinois)

Last Season for the Illini:

Last year’s Illinois season was not a good one. At one point they were down to third string quarterback Jeff George Jr. and his glorious mullet as a starter. They started by pounding Murray State 52-3, but were soundly beaten by North Carolina and Western Michigan before Big Ten play began. When Purdue beat them it looked like a 1-11 season was possible, but Rutgers saved the day with a 24-7 loss to the Illini.

A struggling Michigan State also gave them a 31-27 win, but for the most part this was a really bad team. Against Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin the Illinois scored a grand total of 11 points while giving up 117. They weren’t really close with Northwestern and Minnesota, either. Finally, I cannot stress this enough, THEY WERE BAD ENOUGH THEY ACTUALLY LOST TO DARRELL HAZELL!

Illinois Offense

Last year the Illinois offense was really bad. Almost Rutgers bad. Purdue was 8th nationally and first in the Big Ten in percentage of offensive drives that finished in a three-and-out (only 14.6%). Illinois was 13th in the Big Ten and 120th nationally at 29%. That means roughly 3 out of 10 drives ended harmlessly after 3 plays. Only Rutgers was worse. Here is what the Bill C. preview had to say about it:

In all, 42 percent of Illinois’ offensive possessions ended within three plays for a non-scoring reason (namely, punts or turnovers). Only three offenses did worse: Kent State, Boston College, and Rutgers. Kent went 3-9, Rutgers 2-10, and BC had to force three-and-out-plusses at a 42 percent clip to eke out a bowl bid.

Avoiding three-and-outs is only step one toward success; Purdue was good at step one and almost literally nothing else. But in a conference that featured plenty of three-and-outs, Illinois committed them non-stop and forced very few.

There is some reason for hope, however. Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin are a decent 1-2 punch in the running game. Foster rushed for 720 yards and 7 TDs while Corbin had 523 yards and 2 TDs. They could break the big run at any time, but were too often stuffed at the line.

At receiver they also have some talent. Malik Turner (48-712-6) is a true No. 1 receiver and Mike Dudek is finally healthy after he had a great year in 2014. He had 76 receptions that year and was an explosive option in the slot, but has missed the last two years with knee injuries. Even the offensive line has some experience with Christian DiLauro as a three-year starter and guards Nick Allegretti and Gabe Megginson back.

Who will start the offense, however? Chayce Crouch came in against Purdue last season and was a dynamic rushing threat. He rushed for 176 yards and 2 TDs on the season, but 137 yards and both TDs came against Purdue. He injured his shoulder the next week and missed the rest of the season. That leaves him, Virginia Tech transfer Dwayne Lawson, and the immortal Jeff George Jr. to battle for the QB spot. George was 38 of 94 last year for 470 yards and 4 TDs against 5 interceptions.

Illinois Defense

While the Illinois offense could not stay on the field, the defense struggled to get 3-and-outs. The defensive line was pretty strong, but the rush defense was pretty bad. Illinois gave up 31.92 points per game and 219.2 yards per game on the ground.

The good news is that some young players got some experience. Tre Watson and Julian Jones had good seasons as sophomore linebackers. Watson finished with 102 tackles, while Jones had 32.

In the secondary Patrick Nelson had a good freshman year with 75 tackles, while Stanley Green had 62 stops. Both players were freshmen and struggled against the pass, but they did a decent job of tackling, at least. Overall the Illini had just 7 interceptions, and two came against Purdue. Cameron Watkins is expected to man one of the tackle spots, but Illinois is trying to develop depth.

The real struggle will be up front. The top five players along the defensive line are all gone from a defense that wasn’t that good at stopping the run in the first place. Jamal Milan and Kenyon Jackson are sophomores that are expected to step into starting roles at defensive tackle, while James Crawford will be a starter at defensive end as a senior.

Illinois Special Teams

Hazell has Chase McLaughlin to thank for allowing him to coach another week. McLaughlin was perfect on the season before missing what would have been the game-winning field goal against the Boilers. He finished 12 of 17 and had a long of 53 yards, so his miss was a small blessing. Illinois must find a new punter, however, and there are three listed on the roster.

In the return game Kendrick Foster and Nathan Echard averaged about 20 yards per return, but 41 yards was the longest return of the season.

Game Outlook

As I said above, this needs to be a win for Purdue. It would be terribly disappointing to lose at home to an Illinois team that even Hazell could beat. There is not a lot about Illinois that looks scary this year. They have a few decent pieces offensively, but that defensive line was a strength last season and it needs to be completely rebuilt. Offensively… the team as a whole was a mess.

There are not going to be a lot of opportunities to look at a game this year and say, “Yes, Purdue should absolutely win this one.” This is one of them.

Way-too-early Prediction

If you believe Brohm is better than Hazell (and we had damn well better hope so) then we should win this. We’ve won a single Big Ten home game in four years. That is terrible, but I think we can get this one. Purdue 41, Illinois 24