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Know Thy Opponent 2020: Illinois Fighting Illini

The Illini currently possess the Cannon, but Purdue can get it back.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Purdue Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The series with Illinois has been an interesting one in recent years. It seems like home field has not meant a single thing. Purdue has won four in a row in Champaign. The Illini have won three of the last four in West Lafayette, only losing in 2017. It is an odd series and one of the few where the all-time leader can switch very soon. Purdue has not had a lead in the series since 1902, but it was tied entering last season before Illinois won.

Despite Purdue’s 4-8 record last year there were several close calls. The Nevada and Indiana games were decided on the final play. With Illinois it was a sloppy game played in lousy weather, but Illinois took advantage of probably the worst offensive day for Purdue under Brohm. That was enough for them to squeeze into a bowl game. This is a series where the winner usually needs that game to reach a bowl game, and that probably rings true in 2020.

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: 43-7 at Illinois on 10/13/2018

Last Illinois win: 24-6 at Purdue on 10/26/2019

Head Coach: Lovie Smith (15-34 in 5th season at Illinois)

Last Season for the Fighting Illini

Did Purdue help save Lovie Smith’s job? After beating a winless Akron and winning at UConn the Illini became the third straight Big Ten victim to Eastern Michigan, losing 34-31 on a last second field goal just like Purdue did a year earlier. That started a four game losing streak with losses to Nebraska, Minnesota and Michigan.

It looked like another lose season at that point, then they pulled off a stunning upset of Wisconsin and followed it with wins over Purdue, Rutgers, and Michigan State. Now with bowl eligibility they promptly lost to Iowa and had an embarrassing home loss by 19 to winless-in-conference play Northwestern.

So how do you judge this season? The win over Wisconsin was a definite outlier. Beating Michigan State in East Lansing was an upset. They held serve against Purdue and Rutgers, but the Northwestern and Eastern Michigan losses were bad.

Illinois Offense

Illinois was not a strong offensive team last year. Even though they beat Purdue by 18 they had a drive of 22 yards after a fumble and a pick-6. That’s two mistakes that resulted in 14 of their 24 points. They finished the season 115th in total offense at just 329.5 yards per game and scored just under 27 points per game. The passing offense was 105th in the nation at 185.3 yards per game. I tend to think that if this game was not played in a monsoon (favoring the team with the stronger running game) and without numerous Purdue mistakes we see a different result.

Illinois was so content to run the ball last year against us they attempted only seven passes, completing three for 26 yards. They ended up running for 242 on 53 carries. Brandon Peters threw for 1,884 yards and 18 TDs last season against 8 INTs and probably leads the quarterback derby. Isaiah Williams and Matt Robinson could challenge him, however. They get to ply their trade behind an offensive line that returns four starters including Kendrick Green and Doug Kramer.

Reggie Corbin left for the NFL after rushing for 675 yards and 7 touchdowns. That leaves the running back position wide open. Ra’Von Bonner and Mike Epstein are the top candidates to take over in the backfield.

The receiving group has a wealth of transfers to work with, including last year’s top receiver. Josh Imatorbhebhe, in addition to being part of a Dave Matthews song, led the team with 33 receptions for 634 yards and 9 TDs. Brian Hightower (from Miami) and Luke Ford (from Georgia) are also expected to play major roles. Donny Navarro (27-345-2) also had a decent season and returns.

Illinois Defense

The Illinois defense was merely okay last season. It gave up a little over 26 points per game and about 408 yards per game. It was in the lower half of the conference, but it was not truly dismal like Rutgers, Maryland, or Purdue. Perhaps the biggest surprise of Lovie Smith’s time in Champaign is that the defense has been pretty average at best. As a defensive-minded coach a lot more was expected, but so far his units have not delivered.

Lineabcker Jake Hansen is back and should be the leader of the defense. With Washington transfer Milo Eifer the Illinois have a solid pair of linebackers to build around. They still need to replace Dele Harding, who had an astonishing 153 tackles last season.

The defensive backfield will be anchored by Sydney Brown, who was second on the team with 88 tackles a year ago. He also had three interceptions. Nate Hobbs was also very active with 67 tackles and a pick. Tony Adams had 39 tackles with two interceptions, so the defensive backfield has a wealth of experience.

The defensive line is almost a complete rebuild at all four spots and there needs to be more of a pass rush after Oluwole Betiku left with 9 sacks a season ago. Isaiah Gay was effective with 27 tackles and a sack, but there is a lot of uncertainty up front.

Illinois Special Teams

James McCourt should handle the kicking duties against after going 13 of 19 a year ago with the game-winner as time expired against Wisconsin. He also had a long of 57 yards, so he has a big leg. Blake Hayes was also won of the conference’s better punters by averaging over 44 yards per kick.

In the return game Jordan Holmes handled most of the duties at punt returner with 10 returns for a 7.3 yard average. Illinois must also find a new kickoff returner after the departure of Dre Brown.

Game Outlook

The Illinois game is always one of those games where, as a Purdue fane, you look at it and say, “that needs to be a win if we’re going to make a bowl.” The last four times Purdue has made a bowl game it has gotten in at 6-6, and it beat Illinois all four times. Purdue hasn’t made a bowl game while losing to the Illini since 2002. The same rule tends to apply to Indiana as well.

I believe the same applies this year. Purdue’s tough opening stretch eases with games against Rutgers and Illinois in consecutive games. Purdue probably needs to beat both if it going to make the postseason this year. If it is worse than 2-2 after the first four games it definitely needs both.

Way-too-Early Prediction

Purdue has dominated in Champaign of late. The last trip was a 46-7 drubbing that was among the most convincing wins of Brohm’s tenure. Purdue has been so dominant that Darrell Hazell won more Big Ten games there than he did in West Lafayette. Brohm has mostly done well with a healthy team against Illinois, and I think we tie the overall series. Purdue 31, Illinois 21