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Interview with the Enemy - The Champaign Room

The folks from the Illinois SB Nation site stop by to talk Saturday’s game.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

With Purdue heading to Champaign for a matchup with the country’s number one defense I asked the folks over at the Champaign Room to answer some of my burning questions. They obliged.

Illinois football has really turned things around. Bret Bielema has been on the job for less than two years and suddenly you’ve got the top ranked defense in the country, so my first question is simple, how?

You know, it’s convenient that a Purdue blog should ask me this question because it’s easiest to explain to you guys. Remember when Jeff Brohm took over Darrell Hazell’s lifeless husk of a program and put those players in a bowl game immediately? It’s like that! Purdue was able to take guys who hadn’t found much success and put them in position to play good football with coaching and strategy, turning David Blough into an NFL player along the way. When Bret Bielema put together his staff, I gave him very high marks for bringing in guys that had experience in college football coaching and recruiting from a bunch of different backgrounds and from a bunch of different archetypes. He found an up-and-coming star defensive coordinator and poached him from an SEC team that is also the other side of a dormant rivalry with Illinois. That was a bold move to get Ryan Walters and it has paid unbelievable dividends. Lovie Smith always recruited good athletes for their positions, figuring he could coach them up later (he could not, or couldn’t be bothered to). This left Walters with guys like big DT Calvin Avery, power forward/edge rusher Keith Randolph, speed rusher Seth Coleman, speedy linebacker Tarique Barnes and good speed and quickness in the secondary. Lovie simply never changed his defensive strategy, even when it meant his base Cover 2 had a linebacker covering Rondale Moore in the slot. Walters has tailored the defense to get the most out of these guys.

They run a lot of Cover 1 to take advantage of Sydney Brown’s range and ballhawking qualities. That means the corners are in man coverage most of the time…which, when you have good athletes, is the best way to use them! To support this secondary scheme, they prioritize bringing pressure and will use several different fronts and blitz packages over the course of a game to that end. It has worked pretty well, with the only vulnerability being that if a quarterback can beat the blitz by rolling out, they might be able to find receivers in positions to make huge plays downfield with minimal backside help. This happened against Nebraska early on. There’s a lot of risk, but it’s been worth taking so far.

Walters is a superstar and the position coaches are clearly an upgrade over Lovie’s kid coaching linebackers. That’s the simplest way to put it: Walters optimized scheme for the talent available.

Continuing on the subject of Bret Bielema the internet tells me his nickname is Bert. Isn’t that just a misspelling of his first name? How is that a nickname?

It’s been around for longer than I even know. He was Bert to me at Wisconsin and that was 10 years ago. At this point it’s just gone on for so long that I’m not even willing to question it anymore, and it sounds like he isn’t either.

I think the main reason it’s caught on is because Bret with one ‘t’ is not very common and Bert is very fun to say. There are many Bretts. There’s only one Bert.

With the Illinois defense being the star of the show who does Purdue need to look out for on the offensive side of the ball?

I still don’t think this offense has reached its full potential, but it’s been a renaissance under Barry Lunney Jr in his first year. Chase Brown is the workhorse, but he doesn’t have breakaway speed from the middle of the pile. The game breaker is Isaiah Williams, a former quarterback who was heavily recruited as a receiver by the likes of Ohio State and Oklahoma. He landed at Illinois because we hired his high school coach on as an assistant and promised he could play quarterback, and that request was honored by Lovie’s regime. Bielema’s guys have found him a niche at receiver due to his Rondale Moore-grade athleticism. He lacks Moore’s hands and route running ability, but can absolutely make guys miss and take it to the house.

A lot of my pessimism for this season was driven by my fear of losing several veteran starters on the offensive line, and those losses have had a big impact on our ability to run the ball between the tackles well. Lunney has schemed his way around this with the help of transfer QB Tommy DeVito, but Chase Brown is going to break a lot of tackles.

Purdue has been a team of ups and downs all season long and it seems that Illinois has had their share as well. How can you explain the early season loss to moribund IU?

The biggest limitation of the offense is in the red zone when the defense tightens up and there’s less space to work with. The run-up-the-gut MANBALL stuff Illinois did last year isn’t really in the arsenal this year

This is compounded by the fact that through 9 games, the coaches haven’t yet accepted that they have real issues with short yardage in the red zone. At least I’m assuming that’s why they refuse to settle for field goals. Michigan has similar red zone issues and Jake Moody is a Groza award frontrunner.

Those red zone issues were out in full force against the Hoosiers and last week against Michigan State. The two games were remarkably similar in that first year punter Hugh Robertson had multiple disastrous punts in each game and Chase Brown fumbled in enemy territory. Michigan State moved the pocket on offense to evade the pressure and made some passing work with that strategy.

The Indiana game required even more ridiculous things to happen, such as a play where I still don’t understand how a touchdown for Illinois wasn’t called, four turnovers by the Illini, an Indiana field goal that I swear to God missed, and Connor Bazelak becoming a flame throwing sniper in the fourth quarter for the first and only time with Indiana.

It becomes more mystifying each week.

What do you expect will happen in this weekend’s game and can either of these teams get on track and be consistent?

I expect Barry Lunney to call his best game of the season and Illinois to put up three touchdowns or more. How this game goes depends on whether or not Illinois makes any backbreaking mistakes , and outside of that it’ll be dictated by how well Devon Witherspoon covers Charlie Jones and how quickly Aidan O’Connell can scan the field and get the ball out. If he starts looking at the pass rush instead of downfield, it’ll be a long day and it might look like Purdue’s last two games. I think a clean game could yield a low scoring shootout of sorts. 24-21 Illinois