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Illinois at Purdue: Preview

The Fighting Illini are coming off of a massive upset, so what does that mean for Saturday.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Now it is winning time.

Over the last few weeks we have seen significant improvement from a very young Purdue team. The overall 2-5 record may not show it, especially with the bad Nevada loss stuck on there, but there has been definite improvement. David Bell is an emerging star. Jack Plummer is getting better each week and cementing himself as the quarterback of the future. George Karlaftis is also a budding star. Other freshmen are gaining valuable experience, plus we’re starting to get some injured veterans back.

Now is the time to make a move, as I still believe this Purdue team can reach the postseason.

Purdue needs to win 4 of its last 5 games, one of which is at a top 15 Wisconsin team. The Badgers do not look as daunting as they did a week ago at this time, but they are still going to be heavily favored against us in Madison. That leaves the margin for error extremely narrow. The next three weeks present games that Purdue is fully capable of winning. Illinois may have just pulled off a huge upset, but there are still a lot of questions about them. Nebraska is losing players like drummers in Spinal Tap, so much so they are currently a home underdog to Indiana. Then you have Northwestern, which seems completely averse to offense.

Three straight games, three straight opportunities for wins. Get all three and we’re guaranteed, at minimum, at playing Indiana at home for a third straight bowl game. The Hoosiers have a gaudy record and will probably end up winning at least seven games, but they struggle against any team with a pulse.

Of course, that is looking far ahead. It all means nothing if Purdue does not beat Illinois this week and retake the overall series lead for the first time since the early 1900s.

Illinois Fighting Illini

2018 Record: (4-8, 2-7 Big Ten West)

Bowl Result: None

Blog Representation: The Champaign Room

Series with Purdue: Series Tied 44-44-6

Last Purdue win: 46-7 at Illinois on 10/13/2018

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

Head Coach: Lovie Smith (12-31 in 4th season at Illinois)

2019 so far for Illinois

This year was widely seen as a make-or-break season for Lovie Smith and before last week it looked like it was trending “break”. After blowing out Akron in the opener and winning by 8 at UConn (Akron and UConn being two of the worst FBS teams in America) the Fighting Illini lost on a walk-off field goal to Eastern Michigan, just like Purdue last season. The 34-31 loss seemed to seal Illinois’ fate, especially after giving up 480 yards of offense to the Eagles. Illinois opened Big Ten play with losses to Nebraska (42-38), Minnesota (40-17), and Michigan (42-25) before stunning the nation last week against Wisconsin.

Illinois beating Wisconsin last week was even more stunning than our own win over Ohio State last year. Illinois was a 31-point underdog to the Badgers, but refused to go away. They took advantage of some Wisconsin turnovers and general sloppy play. The game also showed how Illinois has been a different and more competitive team at home this year. They gave up a ton of yards to Nebraska, but kept is close. They came storming back form down 28-0 against Michigan to make it a game late.

Illinois has a deceptively strong offense in that they can move the ball and score some points. They also have a feast or famine defense that either makes the big play or gives up the big play. Their defense is pretty much equal to Purdue’s in terms of yards given up and points, but they are +7 in turnovers (Purdue is -6) to give them a pretty significant edge. That is why we should be concerned on Saturday.

Who to Watch on Offense

Reggie Corbin – RB – Corbin had the big play on Saturday, ripping off a long touchdown run to get Illinois back in it against the Badgers. On the season, Corbin has 479 yards and 4 touchdowns, but he has the ability to break the big run. Dre Brown also spells him well with 280 yards rushing.

Josh Imatorbhebhe – WR – If you’re looking at a guy to get in the end zone regularly it is Imatorbhebhe. He has 22 receptions for 364 yards and 6 touchdowns as the top receiving target on the team. His longest reception is only 36 yards, but he is still a stead target that can move the chains.

Brandon Peters – QB – The transfer from Michigan has lacked consistency this year, but he has had his moments. Against Wisconsin he completed only 9 passes and he completed only 5 against Minnesota. The Illinois passing offense is 12th in the conference at just 188.4 yards per game, but it is going against a pass defense that is 13th in the conference in Purdue’s. Peters has 971 yards passing and 12 TDs against 4 INTs and completes 56% of his passes. He has also been sacked 15 times. Overall the Illinois offensive line is the worst in the conference at 25 sacks given up.

Who to Watch on Defense

This matchup will be interesting as Illinois has struggled to stop the run (nearly 200 yards per game given up) while Purdue is the worst rushing team in the conference by a wide margin. Purdue barely rushes for 59 yards per game, which is 129th nationally out of 130 teams in FBS. We’re more than 30 yards per game behind 13th place Rutgers. Purdue makes up for it with the best passing offense in the conference, but still. If Purdue can’t run the ball at all against Illinois it simply can’t run the ball.

Oluwole Betiku Jr. – DL – Betiku is a nightmare for Purdue’s porous offensive line. He is second in the Big Ten with 8 sacks on the season and has 10.5 tackles for loss. This is a guy that lives in the backfield and is a disruptor to anything up front.

Dele Harding – LB – Harding is the leading tackler in the Big Ten by a wide margin with 85 stops. Think of him as Ben Holt, but with 18 more tackles on the season. He gets everywhere and even has a pair of interceptions with a touchdown.

Jake Hansen – LB - Hansen is a troublesome player too with seven forced fumbles on the season. He has recovered three of them to go with 3.5 sacks on the season. He leads the Big Ten in fumbles forced, which is a concern given Purdue’s turnover struggles.

Who to Watch on Special Teams

Blake Hayes – P – Hayes has had an impressive season so far, averaging over 45 yards per kick. He has a big leg with 14 punts over 50 yards and 20 downed inside the 20.

James McCourt – K – McCourt knocked through last week’s game winner and is now 6 of 9 on the season. He is also perfect on extra points.

Game Outlook

Was last week a real turning point, or was it an outlier where Wisconsin played down to a bad Illinois team? We’ll find out this week. In many ways, Lovie Smith has been like Darrell Hazell. Illini fans have hoped for a lot more, but the turning point never really came. Lovie at least has the big win against Wisconsin, but his 12-31 mark is not much better than Hazell’s 9-33. He just has not gotten in done, and this year it is with an Illini team that has brought in a lot of solid talent via the transfer portal.

In a way, this game is a lot like the Purdue-Illinois game from four years ago. In that one Purdue was coming off of a stunning win over Nebraska. It was facing an Illinois team that had some glaring flaws on paper, so if it was truly a turning point for Hazell, Purdue needed to win.

Illinois won 48-14.

That was the moment I knew it was truly over for Hazell, and Illinois fans are now in a similar spot. In retrospect, Purdue only beat Nebraska because the Cornhuskers got horrendous quarterback play. We were no better and a bad Illinois team throttled us on its way to a bowl game. I can see something similar happening on Saturday. The Illini are rising a lot of emotion from last week, but it is going to take a lot more than one upset to truly prove things are now on the right track. This game probably means more for Lovie’s long term prospects than last week, to be honest.