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Matchups to Watch | Purdue vs. Illinois

What Matchups To Watch For Saturday Against The Fighting Illini

Aidan O’Connell is the key to a victory for the Boilers against the Fighting Illini.
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Matchups To Watch

Purdue Boilermakers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini

The Boilers travel to Champaign this Saturday to face off against the surprise of the B1G Illinois led by second year head coach Brett Bielema. The Illini have raced to an 7-2 record and surprisingly lost both games to two of the lower thought of programs this season in Indiana and Michigan State. Illinois has some quality wins over Minnesota, at Wisconsin, and Iowa and features another highly rated defense. This team just seems like a more offensively proficient Iowa and Wisconsin team this season and that doesn’t particularly bode well for Purdue considering the previous two games. Let’s take a look at what might be the most important matchups to watch.

Illini WR Isaiah Williams vs. Purdue CB’s Not Named Cory Trice

It’s no secret that the Boilermakers have struggled against good running backs throughout the better part of Jeff Brohm’s tenure at Purdue but this season they have proven to be quite stout. This season they rank 25th in rushing yards per game (118.2) but rank 78th in passing yards per game (237.1) which places them as the 38th overall defense (355.3 yards per game). The frequency of big plays in the passing game has been an issue from the Penn State game where Purdue continually gave up big plays that changed the momentum of the game.

Illini WR Isaiah Williams is the Illini’s best receiving threat but in the mold of Wisconsin and Iowa, they seem to be content with running the ball and taking shots down the field when presented with the opportunity. Williams has 537 yards receiving (which is about 150 yards more than the next player) but holds 5 touchdowns as well. When Trice isn’t matched up against the opposing team’s best playmaker outside, the opponent has largely been able to get behind the corners and safeties and generate big plays in the passing game.

It was interesting to see Hampton get the start last week instead of Cam Allen at safety but this week it will be more interesting to see who plays opposite Trice as the field cornerback. If that play struggles, look for the Illini to take advantage with multiple deep passes to keep the safeties out of run support opportunities or getting Williams underneath and into space.

Illini RB Chase Brown vs. Purdue Front 7

I am going to start this out really simply: Chase Brown is a legit dude. He is averaging nearly 6 yards per carry, 141 yards per game, and leads the nation in rushing yards. The dude knows how to tote the rock and there is nothing scarier to Purdue fans than to see that level of running back in an offense like Bielema’s. You know they will be content to hand the ball off to Chase Brown 30+ times on Saturday and let him just continually wear down Purdue’s defense until he either pops long runs or the play action schemes bring the safeties into the box for a pass over the top on vulnerable cornerbacks.

Purdue had seemed to make strides over the first half of the season in their run defense and having linebackers properly filling gaps on the defensive line but that seemed to go away last week against the Iowa Hawkeyes. Frequently, Purdue was out of position and was susceptible to cutbacks for long gains in the running game, most notably the long touchdown to start the second half. With 14:54 in the 3rd quarter, Johnson took a 2nd and 10 handoff up the middle, cut back to his right, broke an arm tackle, and raced 75 yards for the touchdown. In this play, you’ll see a defensive lineman getting too aggressive and getting upfield which allows Johnson the cutback lane, a linebacker who fails to step into his gap responsibility on the backside, and a cornerback who fails to maintain leverage to the outside. In short, poor execution that occurred all game that led to Iowa dominating from start to finish. This Illini team is better offensively than Iowa’s and Chase Brown might just be the best running back in the B1G, if not the country.

QB Aidan O’Connell vs. Illini Defense

The Illini feature the #1 ranked defense in the entire NCAA allowing only 232.2 yards per game, giving up only 9 total touchdowns, and being the 2nd rated defense in yards per play at 4.05. Here is where the Illini rank in a number of defensive statistical categories:

  • Rushing Defense | 4th (79.7ypg)
  • Passing Defense | 1st (152.6ypg)
  • 3rd Down Conversion Rate | 3rd (.256%)
  • First Down Defense | 1st (113)
  • Red Zone Defense | 9th (.706)
  • Scoring Defense | 1st (10.44)
  • Team Passing Efficiency Defense | 1st (84.09)
  • Turnovers Gained | 4th (24)
  • Tackles for Loss | 25th (6.7 per game)
  • Sacks | 19th (2.86 per game)
  • Interceptions | 1st (16)

Illinois will be an aggressive defense that will, at times, bring six defenders onto the line of scrimmage and play a man-cover 0 concept behind it. They will likely also play a lot of man to man with a single high safety that will look to roam the center of the field in a deep zone. If Purdue continues to struggle to break man coverage at the line of scrimmage, it will allow Illinois to account for Mockobee in the running game much easier. Against the Hawkeyes, AOC did not distribute the ball well to options outside of Charlie Jones and that needs to occur so Purdue does not become one dimensional.

The fact is that Purdue won’t win this game if O’Connell continues to play like he has the previous two weeks where he has thrown 5 interceptions and seemed to struggle to gain any sort of consistency throughout the games. Against a defense like Illinois, Purdue is going to have to string some long, methodical drives together as Illinois doesn’t give up many big plays. Can AOC and Jeff Brohm be patient and stay on schedule to get themselves consistently in 3rd and short situations to catch Illinois off balance in the play action or inside run game? If O’Connell is needed to throw the ball 50+ times, it likely spells disaster for Purdue as that means they are playing from behind and the run game is ineffective.

The Sum Up: This is going to be a difficult game for Purdue to win. If Purdue can contain Chase Brown (not letting him get to his average would be a good start), keeping Isaiah Williams from the open field for explosive plays, and O’Connell can control the game with consistency and patience in the passing game, they have a chance to put themselves back in the driver’s seat in the West Division. If not, they may struggle to get to 6 wins this season.