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Know Thy Opponent 2018: Illinois Fighting Illini

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Purdue has had the Cannon for two years running and can tie the long-running overall series.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Purdue Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

As bad as things got under Darrell Hazell (and they got really bad) we at least could look at Illinois and think about a victory. Dollar Bill Darrell was 2-2 against the Illini, winning twice in Champaign. Even in the dreadful 2013 season Purdue lost to Illinois (an extremely bad Illinois team) 20-16 for the closest we came to a victory against an FBS foe that season. Purdue has not been great for about 15 years now, but we have at least stayed above the level of Illinois.

Aside from brief runs in 2001 and 2007, the Illini have been mostly dreadful. If you take out those two stunning BCS years they have been to just three bowl games since 2000. In most of that time they haven’t even been close. Of course, when you’re the only Big Ten team to lose to Hazell twice, you have to be bad.

Things don’t look great again in Champaign this fall. Illinois seems to have fallen into the malaise of little talent and poor coaching that puts them further and further behind each season. They enter this season on a 10-game losing streak overall and they have not won a Big Ten game since beating Michigan State in 2016. That’s a streak of 12 straight conference losses, just eight short of the 20 straight they were at when that 2013 team beat Purdue. Expectations are not high in Champaign, and that’s why this game needs to be a win. Purdue has won three in a row there as well.

2017 Record: 2-10, 0-9 Big Ten West

Bowl Result: None

Blog Representation: The Champaign Room

Series with Purdue: Illinois leads 44-43-6

Last Purdue win: 29-10 at Purdue on 11/4/2017

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

Head Coach: Lovie Smith (5-19 in 3rd season at Illinois)

Last Season for the Fighting Illini:

There are not a lot of highlights in a 2-10 season where you don’t win a conference game. The Illini survived a close call against Ball State in the season opener 24-21 and beat Jeff Brohm’s former team 20-7 to start 2-0. They haven’t won since. South Florida handed them a 47-23 defeat in the last non-conference game and in league play the offensive issues really caught up to them.

Across nine conference games Illinois scored more than 20 points just once, in a 35-24 loss at home to Rutgers. You’re just not going to win many conference games that way. The offense was mostly punchless even when the defense had some good moments. Illinois played Wisconsin close in a 24-10 loss. They also lost 24-17 at Minnesota and were in most of the game against us.

It is hard to see any confidence in Lovie smith at this point, really. Illinois has some promise coming in the 2019 recruiting class. The 2018 class ranked a modest 50th with three 4-star commitments, but Smith’s teams just haven’t been very good the first two years. They are 2-16 against the Big Ten and have struggled even in easier non-conference games. His recruiting and results so far have only been slightly better than Hazell, and that is not a good sign.

Illinois Offense

Who will be quarterback for the Illini? The immortal Jeff George Jr. left as a graduate transfer, and he was the top passer among three quarterbacks that saw significant time. That is not really saying much. The passing game was… not good. Illinois QBs completed only 49.5% of their passes for 2,098 yards and 8 touchdowns against 19 interceptions. They rated 110th in passing yards among 130 FBS teams last season. When you consider teams like Georgia Tech, the service academies, and Georgia Southern run passing averse offenses that’s pretty bad. Even Georgia Tech and Navy still had more passing TDs. They were still better than Minnesota, however.

Cam Thomas is expected to get the first shot at starting quarterback. He was actually quite good on the ground with 299 yards rushing, but was only 28 of 66 for 375 yards and no TDs against 5 interceptions as a thrower. Chayce Crouch was expected to challenge him, but ended his football career this offseason. A.J. Bush could also compete for playing time, but Thomas us the most experienced QB on the roster.

Illinois will probably be a run heavy team, and there is some experience there. Mike Epstein (363 yards, 3 touchdowns) played in five games and Ravon Bonner (219 yards, 4 touchdowns) played in six games. They will run behind a line that returns four starters including 2nd team all-conference guard Nick Allegretti. They also have a new offensive coordinator in Rod Smith. Smith developed the same Khalil Tate that we saw with Arizona in the bowl game. Illinois is hoping he can work similar magic with Thomas.

Thomas does have a few promising receivers to work with. Mike Dudek is back after a pair of knee injuries. He has been quite effective in the offense when healthy, but can Illinois quarterbacks get him the ball? Ricky Smalling and tight end Louis Dorsey give him two more experienced targets, but overall this is an extremely young offense.

Illinois Defense

The Illinois defense last season reminded me a lot of Purdue’s defense under Greg Hudson. It would often do well for a half or three quarters, but with he offense doing nothing it would run out of gas. It wasn’t terrible, but its offense did it no favors.

Del’Shawn Phillips will be the leader of the defense at linebacker. He led the team with 85 tackles and a sack. Unfortunately, defenses are made up of 11 guys. Here is what the Bill C. SB Nation preview has to say about the Illini defense:

First, let me list the seniors that will probably be key contributors to this defense:

Linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips

End of list. So keep in mind that there will be plenty of time for this unit to grow.

In comparison to the offense, the defense had its act together. Big-play prevention was a legitimate, top-20 strength.

Unfortunately, it came at the cost of massive inefficiency. And the D still fell by 30 spots in the Def. S&P+ rankings: after ranking 15th in 2015, the Illini were 59th in 2016 and 89th last year.

Smith didn’t fire coordinator Hardy Nickerson, but he did bring in a new line coach (Austin Clark) and safeties coach (Gill Byrd). Those two units were particularly young last year. And it’s probably a good sign that, even though the safeties were young, Illinois still prevented huge gashes.

It is going to be a young defense. If it is any good, it will be great in 2019. There is just not much proven production. Robby Roundtree led the team with four sacks and could be in line for a breakout season at defensive end. Safety Bennett Williams led the team with three interceptions and had a decent amount of tackles with 64.

This is going to be a unit that figures out a lot as the year goes on. Whoever starts on day one will not necessarily be the starter by the time Purdue rolls into Champaign.

Illinois Special Teams

Most of the key contributors on special teams are back. Chase McLaughlin was 12 of17 on field goals, but famously missed the would be game-winner two years ago after three timeouts iced him. He had a long of 43 yards. Blake Hayes was a solid punter at nearly 42 yards per kick. He also downed 22 off 77 punts inside the 20.

In the return game there was not much, aside from Dudek, who had an 11 yard average on punt returns.

Game Outlook

Not much is expected of Illinois this year. They are very likely going to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten yet again unless several young players have breakout seasons. There is not a definite conference win on the schedule, which includes a trip to Rutgers. To be honest, this is going to be one of Purdue’s easier games, and we’re going to need it as a win to get to a second straight bowl game.

I also like the idea that a Purdue win would tie the long-running overall series. Purdue only has a winning record in Big Ten play over Indiana and Northwestern. Purdue led in the early days of the series by winning four of the first six games and tying the other two. After the 1899 game the Boilers led the all-time series 5-1-2, but have not led the overall series since 1906. We’re 13-5 against them over the last 25 years though, so it is tilting back in our favor.

Way-too-Early Prediction

I think Purdue wins this one relatively easy. Illinois is not a good team and hasn’t been. Again, THEY LOST TO HAZELL! TWICE! AT HOME! Last season it was a relatively dull game where Purdue pulled away late. They are a pretty punchless team offensively. We’re going to be better on offense. I think we have an enjoyable day where a couple thousand Purdue fans roll in to Champaign for a pseudo home game before pillaging the Beef House on the way back. Purdue 38, Illinois 14