The Boilers and Illini will meet for the 93rd time on Saturday and battle it out for the Purdue Cannon, a series that Purdue currently leads 47-45. If Purdue can secure a victory, it would be the 6th time since 1930 that the Boilers have had a streak of at least 4 victories in the series. This game will mark the 69th time the programs have played for the Cannon with Purdue holding a 39-30 advantage in those games.
Purdue enters the game at 1-3 under first year head coach Ryan Walters with both sides of the ball struggling with consistency throughout the game and 3rd down conversion rates for both the offense and defense. Illinois has a 2-2 record on the season under 3rd year head coach Brett Bielema. The Illini are struggling on defense this season with former defensive coordinator Ryan Walters gone at Purdue along with multiple assistant coaches but have lost to Kansas and Penn State while defeating FAU and Toledo.
Let’s get into the keys of the game for the Boilermakers on Saturday!
#1: 3rd Down Conversions
This is a blanket statement for both the offense and the defense this season. Both have been absolutely abysmal throughout the first four weeks of the season as the defense is giving up 52.24% of third downs. That would be good for 129th out of 132 teams, ahead of only UAB, Kent State, San Jose St., and MTSU. Many of those conversions are on 3rd and 5 yards to go or longer with Purdue giving up 20 first downs in those situations. Some of these are back breaking type of plays with Syracuse going for plays of 35 and 26 yards and Wisconsin going for 52 and 34 yards in 3rd down situations. Simply put, the defense has got to do a better job of getting itself off the field and getting the ball in the hands of an offense that seems to get better as the game goes on but often times has been put into a situation where it is having to play catchup.
On the offensive side, the 3rd down conversion rate is a little bit better at 41.07% which stands at 56th in the country but many times those failed conversions have come in situations where you have to get the first down to maintain momentum or shut off momentum from the other side. In situations where Purdue is 3rd and 4th down with 4 or less yards to gain, Purdue has been shut down 18 times this season with 5 of those coming on 4th down and 1 or 2 yards to gain. The Boilers have also put themselves in 3rd and 10+ yard situations 8 times and converted only 1 of those through 4 games. Simply put, Purdue isn’t helping itself on third down because when they have gotten to 3rd and short situations they have failed while also putting themselves behind the chains for long distances as well.
If Purdue wants to beat the Illini, they’ll need to hold the visitors to roughly the same conversion rates they have right now as Illinois is not much better than Purdue on both sides of the ball. The Illini offense ranks just one spot ahead of Purdue’s offense in 3rd down conversion rate at 41.30% and their defense gives up 46.03% of 3rd downs (105th).
#2: Explosive Plays from the Defense
Purdue needs some explosive plays from the playmakers that it has on the defensive side of the ball. It doesn’t appear as though Purdue has the players it needs to really run the defense the way Ryan Walters and defensive coordinator Kevin Kane want to run it so they have to make up for it with some turnovers and other plays to put offenses in a bind. Luckily, Purdue has Kydran Jenkins who is leading the B1G in sacks and tackles for loss through the first 4 weeks of the season. Jenkins leads the B1G with a pressure rate of 17.1%, a full 1.2% higher than second place J.T. Tuimoloau from Ohio State. Nic Scourton is also 5th on that list at 15.2% which means Purdue shares a tie with OSU as having two players in the top 6 of pressure percentage in the B1G.
Another major point to make is that Purdue has now gone nine consecutive game weeks with an interception, which is the longest current streak in the nation. Dillion Thieneman and Cam Allen both have two interceptions along with Botros Alisandro snagging one against Wisconsin (he had an opportunity for two but his first chance slipped through his fingers).
The plays are there to be made on defense but Purdue has seemingly failed to make those plays when the opportunities are presented to them at times when they are really needed. If Purdue can turn the Illini over two or more times, it gives the Boilers a chance to control the flow of the game and make the Illini press more than they would like. Purdue need put pressure on the Illini quarterback and grabbing 3 sacks would be a good start.
#3: Get the Running Backs Involved More in the Passing Game
Purdue has two very good running backs in Devin Mockobee and Tyrone Tracy that have the big play ability to break for a long touchdown at any moment. That needs to be leveraged in the passing game as well with both of these players being very good catching the ball in space and making defenders miss. Purdue has done almost nothing up to this point in the season in the screen game and slowing down the pass rush of the defense by making them conscious of that ability would go a long way to sustaining drives and controlling the game clock more in their favor.
An aspect that would benefit Purdue would be to get both running backs on the field at the same time as Tracy has experience at receiver. This would put two of the best playmakers Purdue has on the field to put pressure on the defense to defend them in space by splitting them wide or into the slot at times to get one on one matchups against linebackers. This would also potentially mean more one on one matchups for Deion Burks, Abdur Rahman-Yaseen, and TJ Sheffield.
The running backs need to get to 120 yards of rushing or more and that’s doable with the type of skills the room has overall. The fumbles from Devin Mockobee and the untimely penalties when the running backs have big gains need to stop.
#4: Getting Hudson Card in a Groove
Card needs to be more than just a game manager and he has some what looked that way the first four games. Card has started using his legs more when the pocket breaks down and when lanes open up to punish the defense for yards. He needs to do that more and more to gain yards on first and second down to put Purdue in better situations and stay ahead of the chains. That’s an aspect that Graham Harrell needs to be more intentional in giving Card more opportunities in the read option or more RPO actions.
Card is completing nearly 66% of his passes this season and has 1,027 yards passing on the season. That isn’t going to be good enough for the Boilers this season and Card needs to uptick the big play ability by pushing the ball down the field more, especially in the seams to his tight ends and ARY. The big play ability in the passing game will give more opportunities for the running backs to find lanes into the second level of the defense.
The most important to this though is the offensive line keeping Card vertical and making sure he has the time to work through his progressions. Many times there have been open receivers down the field that Card has the ability and arm strength to hit easily but he just doesn’t have the time in the pocket to find them. With Gus Hartwig back from injury, it may be in Purdue’s best interest to move Josh Kaltenberger to guard to get the best five offensive lineman on the field at once. The staff isn’t happy with where the offensive line is right now and moving players around may be the only option they have beyond an ideological shift in blocking schemes to make it happen.
Card will likely need to be near 70% with at least 300 yards of passing to keep Purdue in this game while not turning the ball over either through interceptions or fumbles. If he can do that, while also being a threat with his legs, Purdue can win this game.