The Illinois Fighting Illini are coming off of a massive upset of Wisconsin. That has made our friends over at The Champaign Room excited about Illinois football which is rare. Steve Braun of that site is here this week to discuss the Battle for the Purdue Cannon.
T-Mill: Illinois seemed like they had a dead coach walking, then last week happened. How on earth did they spring the upset?
Steve: I don’t know, all indications are that Purdue had a dead coach walking in October 2016 when they went into Champaign, so why don’t you tell me?
But seriously, Lovie was #1 with a bullet on the hot seat list after Chris Ash got fired and his team looked lifeless against Minnesota after blowing games against EMU and Nebraska. Look at how hard we gave up.
There is, however, one thing that we never questioned, and that was the effort and intensity of the players. Against all odds, Lovie clearly never lost the locker room and the team never fell apart, even though it was performing at an unacceptably poor level. I thought there would be a big rift after Lovie’s decision to not try for points at the end of the first half against Nebraska left Brandon Peters and several offensive players visibly upset. They were giving a full effort with full belief in themselves as Michigan trucked them en route to a 28-0 lead. Then Michigan hit cruise control, but Illinois never stopped trying. Michigan had full control of the game, but they didn’t feel they needed their “A” game after getting that big lead. Somehow, in the face of a 4-26 Big Ten record, this losing team never felt defeated. All year, they’ve never given up.
Wisconsin came in with a vanilla and predictable gameplan, but it was one Illinois matched up well against. In the first three Big Ten games, the Illini had been repeatedly shifted out of position against spread offenses with read-option action on a majority of snaps whose goal is to deceive the defense out of position to create a mismatch. That’s not Wisconsin. They want to run it at you and beat you physically, and they can do that running or passing. Curiously, they shelved a lot of the playaction passes that I was worried about. Illinois is very vulnerable to playaction and play fakes in general, and I expected Wisconsin to take full advantage. I try to avoid cliches, but it kind of looked like Wisconsin, from the players all the way up to through the whole coaching staff, didn’t think they had to take this game seriously. You try to get maximum effort out of your players, but it’s hard to do every week, and I think this was exacerbated by the coaches perhaps trying to keep the playbook closed. Illinois won enough one-on-one battles that the conservative approach the Badgers were taking simply never overpowered the Illini and broke the dam like it did against teams like USF and Kent State, and they never adjusted their strategy to compensate for this. Watching the game, it really looked like Wisconsin’s coaches just assumed they’d win the game eventually.
The Illini players never gave up, and ultimately, Lovie Smith had his players better motivated and better prepared than Paul Chryst. I know, it’s stunning to hear myself say that, but it’s absolutely true. Lovie really stacked up to try to take the Power O play away, at times putting 3 DT’s on the field. Another adjustment was putting safety Tony Adams back at his original position of corner, which paid off when he got the incredible interception that made the final drive possible. After all the nasty things I’ve said about Lovie since the Iowa game last year, I’m stunned at the extent to which he outcoached Paul Chryst on Saturday, and my hat’s off to him.
T-Mill: The Illini have at least been competitive in most games this year, has that been enough to keep Lovie around with the Wisconsin upset now on his resume?
Steve: Well, that remains to be seen. So far, this game reminds me the most of the original Purdue Harbor game, where a 1-5 Purdue team knocked off a sleepwalking Ohio State team with national title aspirations en route to missing a bowl and eventually firing that coach. I was hoping we’d be 4-3 right now, but expecting 3-4 with a win over EMU and four straight losses. Lovie will definitely be the coach through the end of this season, but now he needs to build on this momentum and prove this wasn’t a fluke. Illinois is set up to start next season 4-0 and give a new coach immediate credibility, which will be important because a huge amount of the roster graduates after next season. Six wins will prove to recruits that this program is at long last turning around.
T-Mill: One interesting thing to watch is a bad Illinois run defense against a Purdue running game that is 129th in America. Does Purdue find a way to run the ball?
Steve: It depends on how they try to do it. Figure this out: Minnesota and Michigan came into their games against Illinois really struggling to run the ball and ripped off huge yardage against us all day, while Wisconsin stalled out drive after drive. As I mentioned, those read-option concepts have really hurt Illinois, and that’s how Purdue could run the ball, but it works much better with a running QB. I would hope Lovie deploys an uncharacteristically aggressive defense to force Purdue to pass under pressure, but I also won’t be surprised if Lovie sticks with a 4-man rush all day and Purdue runs Doerue off tackle for 10 yards per carry. Oluwole Betiku has not been stout against the run, but the other side of the DL is a bigger mess, with Owen Carney, Isaiah Gay and Ayo Shogbonyo taking their turns being hugely disappointing. Jamal Milan has been stout in the middle and the DT rotation did well last week, but if Purdue is ever going to get the run game going, it’s going to be against the Illini.
T-Mill: The Illini have some weapons offensively. Who should Purdue be afraid of on Saturday.
Steve: Illinois has a bunch of good pieces that don’t quite fit together right on offense. The biggest threat is the run game to the left side of the line. LT Vederian Lowe and LG Kendrick Green absolutely mowed down the Badgers last week and have physically overpowered most of the defenses they’ve blocked against. Reggie Corbin has at times tried too hard to find big creases, but remains a home run threat. Dre Brown has emerged as a guy who will get extra yards. In the passing game, Brandon Peters really struggles under pressure, but a few times a game he delivers an incredible pass that no other QB in recent Illini memory could dream of. He has a lot of skill throwing the ball, but struggles to use it because his recognition skills leave a lot to be desired. Josh Imatorbhebhe is a hell of a specimen at WR who’s strong enough to fight for the ball in tight coverage and rip it away from defenders. He struggles with route-running, while speedy slot receiver Dominic Stampley struggles with drops. Every once in a blue moon, though, you’ll see Peters make the right read and step into a crisp, beautiful throw into an NFL window that hits a receiver in stride, and they turn upfield and get blocking from Imatorbhebhe and rip off a huge gain. The Illini have the talent to make incredible plays if everything lines up right, but this happens so rarely that it’s hard to say there’s any one player on the offense who’s a big threat every snap. Nevertheless, if you don’t commit to bottling up Corbin and he gets 18 inches of daylight, look out.
T-Mill: Defensively, Illinois seems to either give up the big play or make the big play. Is that a concern with Purdue’s propensity for big plays?
Steve: Fun fact: Illinois leads the nation in forced fumbles with 15. Statistical analysis of vast amounts of fumbles in football over the decade have shown that for any given fumble, there’s roughly a 50% chance of either team recovering it. Now, that assumes every fumble is the same; fumbles behind the line are usually recovered by the offense and fumbles past the line are usually not. They all average out to around 50% however. Illinois has been recovering fumbles well above this 50% clip, which can only be explained by luck.
However, Illinois does place a huge emphasis on creating fumbles on defense. This is one of the areas where there is a quantifiable impact Lovie has had on the defense: he has emphasized punching out the ball from day 1, and at long last people are starting to take notice. Jake Hansen in particular excels at this. If that pass rush is working, the Illini pass rushers would rather get the ball out of Plummer’s hands than tackle him at all. Those forced fumbles and the turnovers are big contributors to the “Havoc” stats on defense, but another contributor is the same tendency that got us eaten alive by spread-option offenses: the linebackers crash the line really aggressively on anything that looks like a run, and sometimes play so close to the line that their zone coverage doesn’t even work. When they read the play well and tackle well, they’ll often stuff the run, but more often they’ll shoot the wrong gaps and pursue themselves out of position. That’s when you’ll get footraces into the secondary.
This tendency is why I was so surprised at Wisconsin’s lack of playaction, because the safeties get sucked into run fakes as well. This brings me to another reason for big plays: the pass defense is really really bad, especially the linebackers and safeties in coverage. They don’t communicate as well as they should and receivers sometimes get lost, leading to the kinds of completion Cover 2 is supposed to prevent.
T-Mill: What do you see happening Saturday?
Steve: I’m expecting Purdue to win this game because I think David Bell and Brycen Hopkins are going to be big problems for the Illini pass defense, and Nick Holt has gone 3-0 against Rod Smith dating back to the bowl game between Arizona and Purdue. For as much as Illinois has struggled against the run, they’ve been worse against the pass. You can look at the tape of Eastern Michigan’s Mike Glass carving us up, but the most damning indictment is a true freshman quarterback from UConn making his first start and going 21-31 for 275 yards. Brohm has done a really good job with Plummer this season, especially given the injury to Moore. I’m really high on Brohm as a coach and a big reason is because, like the Illini this year, his Purdue teams refuse to go away no matter who the opponent is. Well. Almost.
For Illinois to win, they’ll need to make enough big plays on defense to make up for the ones they’ll give up in the passing game. They’ll need to get to the quarterback at all costs, and my concern is that Lovie will trust his base Cover 2 against the passing game and wait too late to adjust to bring more pressure. Illinois has been remarkably effective at scoring off turnovers, and they’ll be looking for the ball at all times. Peters will have to be willing to run the ball like he did against Wisconsin to keep the defense honest, and the run game will have to do some work to keep the defense off the field.
For Purdue to win, they need to avoid turning the ball over above all else. Ball security should be a point of emphasis, especially for the receivers. If Purdue is able to run a draw play for a first down early in the game, they’ll be able to suck the defense up the field and sneak receivers behind them. If Purdue has any success running the ball, the Illini are doomed. On defense, Purdue should be blitzing early and often to put the heat on Peters and make him panic. Rod Smith has shown a worrying tendency to abandon the run early if the deficit gets to two scores. If Illinois has to react to everything, they’ll eventually panic and Purdue should be able to win comfortably
My prediction is 45-31 Purdue. I think this will be a fun game to watch for fans who aren’t pinning their bowl hopes on the outcome, and a nailbiter for us. Even if Illinois takes the lead, they’re not really built to grind out the clock with a lead so even if Illinois were to jump out to a 35-0 lead the game would still be FAR from over. The Illini offense will stall out in frustrating ways, but hopefully they’ll be able to consistently run the ball. From a neutral perspective, I’m not comfortable taking the Illini against a desperate Purdue team that’s better than the record indicates.
May the winner of this game use the Cannon to blow Northwestern to smithereens.