The weekly Q&A is back! This week we have Austin Jabs of The Champaign Room to answer my questions about the Fighting Illini.
T-Mill: Illinois has really not been that bad this year and played with confidence against Rutgers. Are they a little ahead of where you thought they would be?
Austin: Coming in to the season there were mixed reactions. Most knew this team was still a work in progress. There were pieces that were still being developed causing most to be cautiously optimistic for 1-2 Big Ten wins. With the current state of the division (garbage) and the surprisingly solid running game, I think fans are looking at this team as a sleeper to possibly make a bowl game in 2018. If you would have told me coming in to 2018 that Illinois would get 4-5 wins and flirt with a bowl berth, I would have been ecstatic. Let’s be clear, though. Rutgers is not good, and that is not an intentional slight to the Scarlet Knights. I hesitate to label this team as world beaters with their win, but there were a lot of positive signs in that game.
T-Mill: The running game has done a great job of moving the football. What is the biggest reason for this?
Austin: The success of the running game starts with the offensive line. The holes created have been better than advertised. When you have two quarterbacks in Rivers and Bush that can tuck it and run, that creates a need for teams to not immediately rush in, as they have to wait and see the play develop. That has helped the Illini gain over 5.5 yards per rush. Even more impressive is the fact that two of those games, USF and Penn State, have been against solid defenses. The Illini rushing attack has gained considerable improvement under first year offensive coordinator Rod Smith from Arizona. Our site had several articles detailing the work he did in Arizona and it was nothing short of superb. Now in year one in Champaign, Smith has found a way to create an offensive identity, something the team lacked under Garrick McGee.
T-Mill: On the other hand, the passing game has not been great. Is it a byproduct of the running game doing so well or inexperience at quarterback?
Austin: The passing attack, or lack thereof, can be attributed to a few issues. Rivers and Bush alike have shown the ability to hit the short under routes, but the deep passing game has struggled significantly. Bush and Rivers both have had issues with overthrowing and under throwing receivers at more than 20 yards out. More aggravating, though, is the drops. many times when the ball has been in the vicinity of the target receivers, plays have not been made. In college football, when you have your chance, you have to make the play. The loss of Mike Dudek has hurt the passing game, as Illinois lacks that true go to receiver. Someone will need to step up in the passing game soon, as you are aware Purdue’s rushing defense only allows a hair over 162 yards per game. Illinois will need more yards than that to get the win on homecoming.
T-Mill: The Illinois defense has looked really good at times and has struggled at times. How do they match up against a Purdue offense that is really rounding into form?
Austin: To be honest, I don’t know. This defense shut down Rutgers in the first half, then allowed Rutgers to go 8 for 8 passing with a touchdown to close the first half. They got picked apart every play. The defense played well against Penn State for 2 1/2 quarters and then got decimated. At this point it is hard to tell what the defense is in 2018. If the offense can stay on the field and sustain drives, giving the defense time to stay rested, Illinois could see the defense succeed. With 12 turnovers gained and the fifth best turnover margin in the country, the defense has shown flashed of brilliance and the team as a whole has not beaten themselves, a welcome change over the past few years.
T-Mill: Let’s not forget this is a rivalry game! Purdue can tie the long-time series for the first time since 1906. What are your thoughts on the Cannon?
Austin: I love a good rivalry game. Illinois has won 3 out of the last 13 matchups, so the Cannon has basically set up permanent residence in West Lafayette. There is not much better than seeing a team celebrate in the locker room and on the field with a massive statue in their hands though.
T-Mill: How do you see Saturday playing out?
Austin: This game is set at a 10.5 point spread with the Illini as home dogs. Purdue has been two different teams this year, losing to Eastern Michigan but beating a good Boston College team. I would hope that the bad version of this team shows up in Champaign. Historically, Illinois has played well on Homecoming, so there is hope for a big win. This game can go either way, and I think both Illinois and Purdue fans would be able to agree on that. I guess I have to be a homer and pick the Illini to squeeze out a win and pray I’m right, 31-28.