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Know Thy Opponent 2022: Illinois Fighting Illini

Illinois is a dangerous team.

Syndication: Journal-Courier Nikos Frazier / Journal & Courier via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Last season’s Illinois game was one of the hardest to watch all year. It was a struggle. The Fighting Illini defense fought valiantly and stymied Purdue’s offense (which was without David Bell) for most of the game. It was like soccer, really. Until deep in the fourth quarter it was 9-6 on five combined field goals, but a late Purdue drive for a touchdown to TJ Sheffield gave the Boilers a much-needed win and turned the season a bit.

There were a few significant things that happened with that win. First, it was the first time Purdue beat Bret Bielema, as his tenure at Wisconsin consisted of beating the crap out of Purdue five times. Purdue never got closer than three touchdowns against Bielema when he was at Wisconsin, so that made the win a bit cathartic.

Second, it gave Purdue the all-time lead in the series with Illinois for the first time in 119 years. Purdue led the early series at 5-4-2 after the 1902 game, lost the new two, then won in 1905 to make it 6-6-2. After that, Illinois ripped off a 9-0-2 stretch to take the series lead for over a century. Going 13-4 in the last seven meetings has moved Purdue back in front.

Third, it marked a permanent quarterback change that ended up being for the good. Jack Plummer was mostly fine as the starter in the first four games of the season, but struggled in this one. Aidan O’Connell took over in the second half and threw two picks, but his game-winning drive was enough to get him named the starter a week later. He has had the job ever since, and Purdue enters the 2022 season with an unquestioned No. 1 at quarterback for the first time in a while. Only Elijah Sindelar in 2019 can really say that over the last decade or so of Purdue football.

By the time Purdue heads to Champaign this year it will have played the toughest part of its schedule. With Northwestern and Indiana to follow, things will be looking really good if the Boilers enter this game at 6-3 or better. Purdue has even won an impressive five straight in Champaign despite having the Darrell Hazell handicap in two of those games.

Illinois Fighting Illini

2021 Record: 5-7, 4-5 Big Ten

Bowl Result: None

Blog Representation: The Champaign Room

Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 46-45-6

Last Purdue win: 13-9 at Purdue on 9/25/2021

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

Head Coach: Bret Bielema (5-7 in 2nd year at Illinois, 102-65 overall)

Last Season for the Fighting Illini

I think Illinois enters this coming season as one of the more interesting teams in the conference. They were a bit like Nebraska in that they were snakebitten into a losing season. Yes, they were 5-7, but four losses were by a touchdown or less. They had Maryland beaten before the Terps scored 10 points in the last three minutes. They lost a home buy game to Texas-San Antonio, but it turns out the Roadrunners were really good. We went over the loss to Purdue, but the home loss to Rutgers late in the year cost them a bowl.

They also had some very good moments. The 20-18 win in NINE overtimes at Penn State, who was in the top 10 at the time, was a stunner. They also won 14-6 at Minnesota. The offense was not very good, but the defense was often good enough to at least give them a chance. If they have just a little more offense with a similar defense this can be a dangerous team.

Illinois Offense

As I mentioned, it was bad. The Illini were only 115th nationally in scoring at 20.2 points per game. That still had them ahead of Rutgers, Indiana, and Northwestern in the Big Ten and ahead of UConn, who was also on our schedule. The running game was okay, which is not a surprise given Bielema’s track record at Wisconsin. Chase Brown rushed for more than 1,000 yards and had five touchdowns. He is back along with Josh McCray, who rushed for 549 yards. McCray had a big day against Purdue with 156 yards.

The passing game was baaaaaaaaaaaad. Illinois was 121st nationally in passing out of 130 teams. It was the worst passing game in the conference at only 156.2 yards per game. The platoon of Artur Sitkowski and Brandon Peters did very little, and both are gone. Enter Tommy DeVito, a transfer from Syracuse. He was limited to three games last year for the Orange, but he was a regular in four seasons for them and has close to 4,000 career passing yards. He can also run a little bit.

DeVito has some targets to throw to. Isaiah Williams, a former quarterback, was the leading receiver with 47 receptions for 525 yards and 4 touchdowns. The addition of Luke Ford from national champion Georgia will help, and Casey Washington (21-294-0) also returns. Illinois didn’t even get over 1,900 yards passing last year as a team. That’s a couple of good weeks for Aidan O’Connell. This is still going to be a run-first team, but it will need at least some balance. They were held to 20 points or less seven times.

Illinois Defense

The defense was actually really, really good a year ago. They were 29th nationally in scoring, giving up 22.14 points per game. That was good enough for 6th in the Big Ten. The pass defense gave up only 215 yards per game and we saw that it was one of the few that really slowed down our passing game. Statistically their defense was on par with our own, but we had a much better offense.

It begins on the end with Keith Randolph and Jer’Zhan Newton as promising young defensive ends. They combined for 7.5 sacks a year ago and should be even better this year. TeRah Edwards is an addition at tackle that is switching sides in a rivalry, as he transferred in from Northwestern.

Leading tackler Tarique Barnes is back at linebacker. He had 80 tackles, two sacks, and an interception a season ago. Ezekiel Holmes and Seth Coleman will play on the outside, and this is another 3-4 scheme that seemed to give Purdue fits last year.

In the secondary the loss of Kerby Joseph, who had five interceptions (one of which came against Purdue) is big. Devon Witherspoon is a very good corner with 52 tackles and an interception from last year. Sydney Brown, who had 69 tackles at safety, is also a key building block. Once again, the pass defense should be pretty good.

Illinois Special Teams

James McCourt did all their scoring against us last year, going 3 of 4 on field goals with one coming from 51 yards. He finished the year 18 of 23, but needs to be replaced. Punter Blake Hayes also needs to be replaced. Donny Navarro III, who fielded both punts and kickoffs, is also gone. That means the special teams unit is facing a complete overhaul, giving Purdue a nice advantage.

Game Outlook

I am kind of wary of this game. Purdue has played very well in Champaign of late. They won there in the pandemic season and in 2018 the Boilers trailed early 7-0 before ripping off 46 unanswered points in a blowout. Memorial Stadium in Champaign has been very friendly to Purdue for over a decade.

Illinois is not a bad team though. Bielema is a good coach that won multiple Big Ten titles at Wisconsin. His teams play hard and can control the clock on the ground. After a tough middle stretch of the schedule the final three of Illinois-Northwestern-Indiana looks really easy on paper, but Illinois is the best of those three teams by far. They were not too far off of an eight wins season a year ago. They will be tough to beat again.

Way-Too-Early Prediction

I feel like this is a letdown game. It is hard to get up every week and the Illini are going to battle. I still think Purdue wins, but it is a struggle like last year. Purdue 20, Illinois 17