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Purdue Football: Quick Look at the Illinois Defense

This looks familiar.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 02 ReliaQuest Bowl Photo by Chris Leduc/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Purdue and Illinois utilize the same defense. That shouldn’t come as a shock. Illinois is still running the 5 man front despite Ryan Walters taking up residency in West Lafayette. It makes sense for Illinois. They recruited for this system, so why not stick with what got you to the #1 defense (in terms of points per game) in the nation last season.

As we’ve seen at Purdue, this defense is much easier to execute with the NFL ready secondary Illinois deployed last season. Despite Illinois’s stout defensive line, they’ve given up 28 points to Toledo, 34 points to Kansas, and 30 to Penn State. They did manage to hold FAU to 17 last weekend, so they’re coming off their best performance of the season.

This should look familiar.

Base Defense

3-3-5 (but it looks like a 5-1-5).

Players to Watch

Red Box - #4 - Jer’Zahn Newton - Defensive End

One of the emerging stars in the Big 10 last season, Newton led Illinois in tackles for loss (14) and sacks (5.5). Talk around the NFL draft water cooler is Jer’Zahn should, at worst, be a day 2 pick, but most have him as a first rounder.

Life without Ryan Walters hasn’t been smooth. Newton’s tackles are down from last year, but he is still tied for the team lead in tackles for loss (3) and sacks (2). He’s the talent on Illinois. Illinois wants to get him in a one-on-one match-up with a guard and let him win. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Boilemakers keep and running back in the backfield to help chip Newton when he has a guard isolated. If they try to block him with 1, it’s going to be a long day.

Blue Box - #88 - Keith Randolph Jr. - Defensive End

On the other side of the nose, opposite Newton, is Keith Randolph. Eventually, these are the type of disruptive defensive ends Purdue needs. The good news is Purdue’s wide receiver coach, Corey Patterson, was Randolph’s primary recruiter (if you looked at the offensive preview, Patterson was also the primary for Williams).

Newton commands double and triple teams on the other side, usually giving Randolph a free shot at the opposite guard. He leads Illinois in tackles with 27, has 3 tackles for loss, and a sack. Last season he was 5th on the team in tackles (53), second in tackles for loss (13) and second in sacks (4.5). You normally don’t see those numbers from a 4-3 defensive end, especially the tackles.

I’m not going to lie, Randolph and Newton worry me. Purdue’s interior line has been, uhhhh, serviceable at their best, and bad at their worst. They’re going to have to hold up against the two best players on Illinois’s roster in one on one situations.

Yellow Circle - #14 - Xavier Scott - Star / Defensive Back

Scott plays the “star” role for Illinois. On Purdue, that’s the spot manned by Cam Allen. He's the 3rd safety on the field and does a little of everything, from being the 3rd corner to helping out in run support. He’s second on the team in tackles (26), tied for 1st in both interceptions (1) and passes defended (3).

I’d love to see Purdue get Burks matched up in the slot against Scott, and Coach Harrell did a better job of moving Deion in the last game. You’ll also see him covering T.J. Sheffield a good bit as we;;. It’s a match-up of strength vs strength in terms of Purdue’s slot receivers vs their “star” defensive back.

Green Circle - #28 - Dyaln Rosiek - Middle Linebacker

Rosiek is replacing Illinois’s leading tackler from last season, Isaac Darkangelo, and has down a serviceable job thus far, He’s 4th on Illinois in tackles (21) including 2 tackles for loss. Keep an eye on Rosiek because I think Purdue can take advantage of him in the run and pass game. He’s a solid tackler, but his aggression gets him in trouble. He will overrun plays to the strong side, leaving back side cutback lanes.

Purdue’s running game perked up in the 3rd quarter against Wisconsin when they went with the outside zone and wider splits. That could give Rosiek issues, because those plays require patience from the defense. Split the wrong gap and you end up getting gashed for a big play when the running back decides to cut it up field (more on that in the film room later this week).

One thing Hudson Card needs to do a better job of is keeping an eye on the middle linebacker when Purdue goes to an empty backfield. An empty backfield is usually an auto-blitz for the middle linebacker in this defense. Purdue has gone empty on a couple occasions and almost pulled off a big play, but Card must do a better job of getting the ball out, because “almost big plays” are another way to say “incomplete passes”.

Overall

On a technical level, I’m excited to watch this game. I’m looking forward to the replay almost as much as the live action because I want to see how these two defenses compare. I give the nod to Illinois at the moment, because of Newton and Randolph but I’m hopefully Purdue can have similar defensive ends in the near future.

At the same time, both Purdue and Illinois can struggle in the secondary. Purdue has looked better in recent weeks, but that could be a product of their bad run defense. The Boilermakers best bet is to throw the ball against the rebuilt secondary, but they’ve got to block up the defensive ends to make that happen.

This should be a fun chess match. Purdue knows what Illinois wants to do. Illinois knows what Purdue wants to do. Both teams have to work around some spots on the roster. If you’re a football nerd like I am, this will be a fun game to break down after the fact.