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Know Thy Opponent 2019: Illinois Fighting Illini

Purdue can take the series lead over Illinois for the first time in over a century.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Purdue probably does not have any “easy” games on the schedule, but the annual Cannon Trophy game with Illinois likely falls into the “easier” category. Let’s be honest: The Illini have not been very good for a while now. They have not been to a bowl game since 2014 and that was two coaches ago. Over the last 25 years Purdue has gone 14-5 against the Illini, bringing the all-time series to a 44-44-6 tie and giving us a chance to take the lead in the all-time series for the first time since 1902. Purdue started the series with a 5-1-2 advantage before going 1-14-2 between 1897 and 1919 to fall behind until last year.

Finally, the Illini have been so bad they lost at home to Darrell Hazell… TWICE.

The Big Ten West is considered wide open this year, but Illinois is probably the only team that doesn’t have a serious chance of winning. Illinois has some nice pieces and struggled with a youth movement at many positions last year. Still, they had some moments and could be dangerous.

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 (9-27 in 4thyear at Illinois)

Last Season for the Illini

Is it really the 4thyear at Illinois for Lovie? The first three have not been great. He has failed to win more than four games in a season so far and has been 4-23 in conference play. Half of those wins have come over Rutgers, and he is 0-3 against Purdue while scoring only 17 points in the last two games.

Last season was not great, but it was still his best at 4-8 with narrow losses to South Florida and Northwestern. They absolutely waxed Minnesota 55-31, but that one game accounted for 1/6thof their offensive output on the season. The biggest problem is that the defense was extremely bad. They fell apart in a 63-24 loss at home to Penn State. Maryland and Iowa also ran up 63 points on them, while Nebraska had 54, Wisconsin had 49, and Purdue had 46.

The defense was the worst in the Big Ten by a wide margin, giving up 39.4 points per game. By comparison, the No. 13 offense in the league was Rutgers at 31.4 points per game. The offense was 11thin the league at 26 points per game.

Illinois Offense

In the Purdue game last season Illinois hit on an early deep pass to Reggie Corbin to set up a 5-yard touchdown run and take a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter. They gained 77 yards on the day, but proceeded to gain little else as they kept trying and failing on deep passes. The lack of consistency led to the 46-7 loss.

Illinois will need more consistency out of the quarterback position this year, but they must settle on one first. Isaiah Williams may be the starter from day one as a 4-star dual threat QB from St. Louis. If the name sounds familiar it is because Illinois last made a Rose Bowl behind Isaiah “Juice” Williams. He will have every chance to started after MJ Rivers transferred, leaving no one with experience on the roster.

The Illini were set to get a pair of receivers via transfer from Oklahoma and Miami, but both changed their minds, leaving the top option as Ricky Smalling. Smalling led the team with 33 receptions for 406 yards and 5 TDs. Trevon Sidney is a newly eligible transfer from USC and Marquez Beason is a 4-star recruit to help at receiver.

The ground game should be relatively strong with Williams providing a boost and Reggie Corbin back as a 1,000 rusher. Corbin ran for 1,085 yards and 9 TDs a year ago and caught 16 passes out of the backfield. He will run behind a line that returns four starters and adds grad transfer Reggie Petitbon from Alabama.

Illinois Defense

The defense sucked last year. Everyone gained yards on the Illini because they were so young, but most of the defense is back. That is good if experience is the best teacher. The only significant departure is Del’Shawn Phillips, who led the team with 95 tackles and four interceptions.

Jake Hansen shared the lead in tackles with Phillips and returns as a promising outside linebacker. He will be joined by Dele Harding and Milo Eifer, giving Illinois some solid experience at linebacker.

Up front Bobby Roundtree was expected to be one of the better pass rushers in the Big Ten, but his career is probably over after he needed spinal surgery due to a swimming accident in May. Oluwole Betiku comes in as a graduate transfer from USC and it is hoped he can step in as a dominant pass rusher. Calvin Avery and Jamal Milan are the top returning tackles and provide a wealth of size in the middle.

In the secondary Nate Hobbs and Quan Hobbs are both back at the corner spots. Tony Adams and Sydney Brown will man the safety spots. Brown had 55 tackles with an interception. Adams added 43 tackles with an interception, so both have plenty of experience.

Illinois Special Teams

Chase McLaughlin is gone at kicker after going 20 for 25 with a long of 54 yards. He was a solid kicker for four years and even signed with the Bills this offseason. Blake Hayes was excellent as the punter last season, averaging over 43 yards per kick.

In the return game Dre Brown averaged 22 yards per return on kickoffs. There was pretty much nothing done on punt returns, but as Purdue fans, we’re used to that.

Game Outlook

Does a wealth of returning experience mean improvement? Illinois was really bad defensively last year. Purdue rolled up 611 yards and moved up and down the field with ease. Jared Sparks threw a TD pass, David Blough caught a TD pass, and walk-on Alexander Horvath rushed for a touchdown. DJ Knox added 150 yards on the ground and the Boilers did what they wanted, when they wanted.

The Illinois passing game is also going to have to be significantly better, and I don’t see it with a likely true freshman QB. This is going to be a ground heavy team with a lot of read-option. Can they do enough offensively to keep up with a bad defense?

Way-too-Early Prediction

Again, this won’t be an easy game, but it should be an easier one. Illinois is getting to “make a bowl or fire Lovie” territory, and since this is game 8 for them their season might be over already by this point. Purdue 45, Illinois 21