Here is a surprising fact about Illinois football: They have won 23 consecutive home openers dating back to 1997. Of course, in 1997 they went 0-11, but considering some of the really bad teams the Illini have had in that time getting 23 straight has been impressive.
And remember: this is HOME openers. Their six games they lost to Missouri in St. Louis at a neutral site do not count. The list includes all four Directionals Illinois with the boxed set of throwing in Illinois State (effective Central Illinois), but also a nice win over Rutgers and a win over Western Kentucky in game one post-Brohm.
You have to go back to 1995, a 38-14 loss to Michigan, to find the last time they started at home vs. A Big Ten team. The streak would have likely stayed alive this year, as they were originally slated to play Brock Spack’s Illinois State in game one, but the Redbirds do have a Big Ten pelt to their credit in recent years.
Purdue is a much different opponent than FCS Illinois State. The Boilers have their own streak going in Champaign. Purdue has won four in a row there and six of the last seven. How dominant has Purdue been? It somehow won there TWICE with Darrell Hazell, giving him more Big Ten wins in Memorial Stadium than he had in Ross-Ade Stadium. Purdue won their 46-7 two years ago, but lost the Cannon 24-6 last season in a swamp.
2019 Record: (6-7, 4-5 Big Ten West)
Bowl Result: Lost to California 35-20 in RedBox Bowl
Blog Representation: The Champaign Room
Series with Purdue: Illinois leads 45-44-6
Last Purdue win: 46-7 at Purdue on 10/13/2018
Last Ilinois win: 24-6 at Purdue on 10/26/2019
Head Coach: Lovie Smith (15-35 in fifth season at Illinois
2020 so far for Illinois
We’ve only had one game so far, but it was not a great 2020 debut for the Illini. I blame Lovie Smith for shaving that majestic beard. Graham Mertz essentially threw a perfect game and Illinois had pretty much no offense whatsoever in a 45-7 rout. When I say no offense I mean it. The Illini only got a defensive touchdown on a 39 yard fumble return by Tarique Barnes and two Illini quarterbacks combined to go 8 of 22 for 87 yards. Brandon Peters had 75 yards rushing on scrambles and designed runs, but overall the offense was putrid with just 8 first downs.
Defensively, the Illini were exhausted. Given nothing to work with they were on the field an astonishing 43 minutes and 28 seconds. Wisconsin had a pretty balanced attack and was rarely challenged in the second half.
That was quite the dramatic turnaround from last year, when a last minute shocking upset of the Badgers in Champaign propelled them to a bowl game. Even then, an embarrassing loss in the regular season finale to Northwestern tarnished whatever progress Lovie’s team had made. The bottom line is that this is year five under Smith and they have only won 15 games, six coming last season. The results in game one do not bode well for another bowl season (if there are bowls).
Who to Watch on Offense
Josh Imatorbhebhe – WR – If you want to know how to say that last night just listen to “So Much to Say” by Dave Matthews (“Sweet little baby!”). He only had 3 receptions for 26 yards against Wisconsin, but he was a big play threat last season with 33 receptions for 634 yards and nine touchdowns. He missed the Purdue game, but was explosive against Michigan State with 178 yards receiving two TDs on only four receptions.
Mike Epstein – RB – Epstein missed much of last season, but the senior has 838 yards and six touchdowns in his career. Last week he had eight carries for 36 yards as the leading rusher that wasn’t named Brandon Peters. Illinois did have some success on the ground (131 yards on 25 attempts), but how much of that was after the game was well in hand?
Brandon Peters – QB – We have seen Peters a few time to varying levels of success. In 2017 he came in for Michigan and completed his only pass of the game for four yards against Purdue. He has since transferred to Illinois, and was the starter for most of last season. He amassed 1,884 yards and 18 touchdowns against 8 interceptions. Against Purdue he did very little, however. That was really the difference. In a game mired in bad weather the Illini had the better running game, got a pick-6, and got another TD from a short field where they got a turnover at the Purdue 22. Peters attempted just six passes, completing three for 26 yards as the running game went for 242 yards. They had a ground game for the poor conditions. We didn’t, and our quarterbacks had to attempt 33 passes in a bog. Peters did rush 12 times for 17 yards and a touchdown. His best game last season was at Michigan State where he completed 22 of 42 passes for 369 yards and three touchdowns.
Who to Watch on Defense
As I said above, the Illinois defense was on the field most of the game wand was completely worn down by the end. Mertz completed 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns. That should give Aidan O’Connell room to find open receivers. David Bell is probably better than anything Wisconsin had and Rondale Moore If He Ever Plays (His new full name) definitely is. Milton Wright also had an impressive game against Iowa. As long as the line holds up O’Connell is primed for a huge day.
Tarique Barnes – LB – In addition to the fumble-six Barnes had a big game 11 tackles, 1.5 for loss, and a sack. On the fumble six he had a virtual convoy to the end zone too as it was one of those fumbles that dribbled out of the pile and found its way to him. He was headed down field before many realized he had the ball.
Nate Hobbs – DB – Hobbs had a pretty good game himself with nine tackles and two of them going for a loss. He is a senior with a wealth of experience and had 67 tackles a season ago. He also has a pair of interceptions for his career.
Sydney Brown – DB – Brown joined Hobbs with nine tackles, but it is usually not good when a pair of defensive backs combine for 18 tackles. That means plays are being made well down field. He had 88 tackles, three interceptions, and a pick-six against Michigan State last season.
Who to Watch on Special Teams
Blake Hayes – P – Hayes did his part last week with five punts for a 43.2 average and a long of 54 yards.
James McCourt – K – McCourt is a solid senior kicker who is in his second year. He was 13 of 19 last season on field goals with a long of 57, and he had the game-winner against Wisconsin for some clutch factor.
I am pretty confident about this one, which is probably a bad sign. Aside from the four game winning streak last year with the stunning win over Wisconsin the Illini have been pretty unimpressive under Lovie. This is generally an opponent that Purdue has done well against, especially in Champaign. In addition to the four straight wins over there Purdue has won six of the last seven and nine of the last eleven. Again, if Hazell can win there twice that is domination.
Purdue actually had a running game last week and Bell was Bell. I am not counting on Rondale playing until I see him line up for a play because of all the mystery surrounding him.
Purdue has a chance to get to 2-0 in Big Ten for the first time in a decade, when it started 2-0 in 2010, then lost the final six games of the year. It can set the stage for Purdue’s 3-0 Big Ten start since 2003. Purdue has just played really, really well against Illinois under multiple coaches now. I was also far from impressed with them and Purdue had a decent but not spectacular day against a better opponent. I think we get to 2-0 heading to Wisconsin.