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Know Thy Opponent 2021: Illinois Fighting Illini

Purdue can take the all-time series lead for the first time in almost 120 years.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 31 Purdue at Illinois Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’ve reached the Big Ten portion of our offseason preview series and again, Purdue could not be better set up for a great start in Big Ten West play. I don’t have any delusions of winning the division unless there is a major surprise, but the possibility of a 2-0 start and at least hope for something is there. The first five games of 2021 are probably the best opening five game stretch that Jeff Brohm has had at Purdue. Getting to start conference play with a perpetually rebuilding Illini squad is definitely a plus.

Of course, that means there is no guarantee of victory. Last season’s Boilermaker win in Champaign is our last win to date. It tied the overall series at 45-45-6, and Purdue could take the overall series lead for the first time since 1903 with a win. The visiting teams have dominated of late, however. Purdue has won five in a row and 7 of the last 8 in Champaign. Illinois has won 3 of the last 4 in West Lafayette. Like Purdue’s home opener, it is a game Purdue should win, but there is no guarantee.

Illinois Fighting Illini

2020 Record: 2-6

Bowl Result: None

Blog Representation: The Champaign Room

Series with Purdue: Series tied 45-45-6

Last Purdue win: 31-24 at Illinois on 10/31/2020

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

Head Coach: Bret Bielema (First season at Illinois, 97-58 overall)

Last Season for the Illinois

Like so many teams last year, Illinois had a strange season. The 2-6 record resulted in Lovie Smith getting fired, but they sandwiched a pair of three game losing streaks around two wins over Rutgers (23-20) and Nebraska (41-23). The Purdue game itself was strange as they were down several players due to COVID protocols and were on the 4th string QB at one point, yet they very nearly came all the way back from a 21 point fourth quarter deficit. Only a late goal line stand and a clinching first down to David Bell saved things.

Basically, Illinois was feisty, but ultimately not good. Now they have Bret Bielema, who has a long history of torturing Purdue from his time at Wisconsin. He has yet to lose to the Boliermakers, winning 24-3 (2006), 37-0 (2009), 34-13 (2010), 62-17 (2011), and 38-14 (2012). Bielema was very good at Wisconsin, winning three straight Big Ten titles, but couldn’t have it in the SEC at Arkansas.

Illinois is not the same as Wisconsin though. The Illini have been in a perpetual rebuild for decades, with some shocking highs like 2001 and 2007, but mostly lows where they struggle to get to a bowl game. They have only made a bowl once in the last six years and have not finished with a winning record since 2011. The last time they won more than six regular season games was 2007. This is a long term project for Bielema, but they are definitely looking at Purdue for an early win as much as we are looking at them.

Illinois Offense

The first item of business for Bielema is to overhaul the offense. It was not great last year, finishing 13th in the Big Ten at just 20.1 points per game. The passing offense was by far the worst in the league. Part of that was, again, COVID messing with the roster, but they have a pair of Big Ten transfers as the likely leaders to start at quarterback. Former Avon HS and Michigan QB Brandon Peters is still around after throwing for 429 yards and 3 TDs a year ago. Rutgers transfer Art Sitkowski is also being added to the mix. Ironically, both players beat Purdue in their most recent starts in Ross-Ade, and Peters has technically beaten Purdue with two different teams in West Lafayette.

Bielema is known for his running game though. It is unlikely he has the same tools at Wisconsin of 1600 pounds of linemen clearing the way for a stable of great backs, but Illinois was third in the league in rushing a year ago, so the potential is there. Chase Brown rushed for 540 yards and 3 TDs to lead the team a year ago. Mike Epstein had 367 yards and a team high 4 TDs as well. Isaiah Williams, who ran for 389 yards and a TD, is now listed as a receiver after playing quarterback, but he is a player to watch out for.

Williams and Brian Hightower (11-209-3) should be the two best receivers, but the passing game has to perform better if Illinois is going to have more success. It rated 114th nationally last season at 152.9 yards per game. Considering the triple option powers are some of the few teams below them that is not good. Kendrick Green was drafted to the Steelers off the line, but the other four starters return led by Veteran Lowe.

Illinois Defense

Last season Illinois had the unenviable combo of the 13th rated scoring offense in the Big Ten and the 13th rated scoring defense. They gave up 34.9 points per game, including 45 to Wisconsin, 56 to Penn State, and 41 to Minnesota. It is hard to win games when you give up five touchdowns and only score three. This is especially troubling since Lovie Smith is known as a defensive coach, but it is also probably a large reason why he is no longer coaching.

Bielema does get some good pieces to work with. Owen Carney should be a solid pass rusher at linebacker with a team high five sacks. Isaiah Gay and Jake Hansen give them a lot of experience at linebacker to make it a pretty decent unit. Unfortunately, this was the worst rushing defense in the conference at over 230 yards per game given up. That won’t matter much if Purdue’s league worst rushing offense doesn’t improve. Zander Horvath did run for 102 yards and a score against them.

On the defensive line Roderick Perry is an excellent 315 pound nose tackle to build around. Deon Pate also played in all eight games and and should provide experience, but this was not a great unit a year ago. They are going to need to do a lot better against the run or there will be more of the same.

Devon Witherspoon and Tony Adams will man the corner spots and both have been with the program a while. They combined for three interceptions last season. The safety spots are in flux with Sydney Brown as the likely candidate to handle one of the spots. Like Purdue, the secondary needs more of a pass rush in order to be successful.

Illinois Special Teams

James McCourt is the returning kicker, but he struggled, hitting only 6 of 10 attempts with a long of 47 yards. Since every FBS team, now Purdue included, needs an Australian punter, Illinois is ahead of the game after Blake Hayes averaged more than 43 yards per kick last year. McCourt struggled on kickoffs, getting only 14 touchbacks on 27 kickoffs.

The return game basically had nothing. Khmari Thompson handled most kickoffs duties, but only averaged 19.5 yards per return with a long of 35.

Game Outlook

Illinois has mostly been an easy mark for Purdue in recent seasons if it is going to make a bowl. In fact, Purdue has not made a bowl while losing to the Illini since 2002. Sure, it is no guarantee that we make the postseason with a win in this game, but history has shown that it goes a long way toward a bowl bid. Purdue was 6-6 in 2011, 2012, 2017, and 2018 and in all four seasons it beat Illinois, otherwise there would have been no bowl game.

I really don’t see Purdue making a bowl if it loses this one. The Boilers absolutely must hold serve at home. Illinois should be better, at least with the first year coach bounce, but Purdue has generally been the better program over the last 20 years. There are very few Big Ten teams we can say that about. Like Oregon State and UConn, this feels like a must-win.

Way-too-early Prediction

Under Jeff Brohm Purdue has mostly done well against Illinois. He is 3-1 against them, with the one loss coming in a swamp where his pass first offense was severely limited. The rest of the time his offense has done very well against them, and I think that continues. Purdue 38, Illinois 28