Illinois (3-7, 0-6) at Purdue (1-9, 0-6)
Time: 11am Central
TV: Big Ten Network (Paul Burmeister, Derek Rackley, Eric Crouch)
Line: Illinois -6.5
Forecast: 29 degrees, mostly sunny, 18 mph winds
Enemy Territory: Hammer and Rails
THESE FOUR THINGS
1. Don't Believe The Hype. Okay, so there isn't actually any hype. Trust me when I say that the only people who will be watching this game will be those being paid to do so, and whatever tiny portions of either fan base remain. But the Illini are in a very strange position this week.
They're favored against a Big Ten opponent for the first time since Indiana came to Champaign last season, and they're favored against a Big Ten opponent on the road for the first time since last making the trip to Purdue in 2011.
They lost both of those games. I'd like to see a case of history not repeating itself, because I am yet to see a Big Ten win since starting this site last season.
Now, while I doubt it's a problem with this team, it's important to not go into this game taking anything for granted. Especially when you've lost 20 straight conference games, but even though Purdue is bad -- really bad -- that doesn't mean the Illini can just show up and win. And, like I said, I don't think that will be the case. I almost wonder if I'm writing this for us more than the team. I know I'm optimistic about our chances, but I feel like I'm setting myself up to get kicked in the face.
2. Deal With The Conditions. As you saw in the forecast above, it's going to be cold and windy on Saturday morning. The coldest that this team has dealt with this season, as wind chills are expected to be in the teens. Still, what worries me more than anything is the wind as we've seen it can mess with Nathan Scheelhaase's throws in recent weeks.
But the good news is we should be able to run the ball against Purdue. Now, statistically Purdue's run defense isn't as bad as ours, but the Boilermakers are still allowing 5.25 yards per carry, which ranks 111th in the country. So while we'll never be considered a running team, this is definitely a situation where we should find success with Josh Ferguson and Nathan Scheelhaase. Hell, maybe the coaching staff can even bust Donovonn Young out of whatever locker they've been keeping him in the last few months.
Also, while this may come as a bit of a surprise since there really isn't anything Purdue is good at, but it's actually decent at limiting explosion plays on defense. They rank sixth in the conference and 55th in the nation having allowed only 45 plays of 20 yards or more. So while we might pop a big play or two in the passing game, our best bet may just be moving the ball down the field using short passes and runs.
3. Pressure Danny Etling. We came close to knocking off a team with a freshman quarterback on the road earlier this season against Penn State. This week we'll get a second chance, but Etling hasn't been nearly as successful as Christian Hackenberg. Since taking over for Rob Henry earlier this season Etling has completed barely 50% of his passes for 1,042 yards, five touchdowns and six interceptions.
Part of that is he's a freshman. Part of that is the talent around him. And a big part of it is the offensive line he finds himself working behind.
Purdue's offensive line will look familiar to Illini fans who watched last year's unit. Purdue's only averaging 2.39 yards per carry this season, is allowing 6.5 tackles for loss per game -- not terrible, not good, but actually less than the Illini -- and, more importantly to Etling, is allowing a league worst 3.5 sacks per game. That's ranked 118th in the nation, and it's probably not fair to simply blame the offensive line for it, as Etling has been a bit too slow on the trigger at times as well.
Well, this would be a great week for the Illini to find a sudden pass rush, wouldn't it? It's been non-existent for the most part this year, as the Illini have only 11 sacks on the season through ten games. With this Purdue offensive line and Etling under center, we may add a few sacks to that tally, even without blitzing. However, if the Illini can't get pressure on Etling and he gets time, even an offense as anemic as Purdue's can move the ball down the field.
4. Score Touchdowns. That seems overly simple, doesn't it? Well, what I mean is when the Illini get into the red zone they need to find the end zone. So far this season the Illini are averaging 4.17 points per trip to the red zone. That's good enough for tenth in the Big Ten, and while I don't know where it would put us nationally, I know it's not good.
We've had 41 red zone possessions this season and only 25 have resulted in touchdowns. That 60.98% rate ranks 71st in the country. And while touchdowns are most important, the fact is we've only put up points of any kind on 32 of our 41 red zone possessions, and that scoring rate of 78.05% ranks 93rd in the nation.
Winning teams put points on the board in the red zone. Minnesota is not particularly outstanding at anything this season, but it's averaging 5.16 points per red zone trip, and it has put points on the board 31 of the 32 times it's reached the red zone. It's also done a great job of keeping opponents from scoring inside the red zone. Those two factors more than anything help explain why Minnesota is 8-2.
Well, if there was ever a week in which we could start finishing drives in the red zone, this would probably be the one. Purdue's opponents have had 45 possessions inside the red zone, and they've scored in 43 of them, including 37 touchdowns. That's an average of 5.33 points allowed per possession.
We need to take advantage of that. If we do we're probably going to win this game, and maybe even win comfortably.
Fornelli: I haven't really made a secret about it this week, but I think the Illini are going to win this game. In fact, I think they're going to win it with relative ease. Yes, we have problems. A lot of them. But Purdue actually has more. The Illini actually have areas of the team you can consider a strength, but if you watch Purdue game tape -- don't -- you won't find any area of this team you can call a strength. So as long as the Illini don't make mistake after mistake -- and I'm not putting it past them -- this game should go our way and be comfortable. Illinois 35-14 (8-2 on the season).
Primiano: I've written a recap for almost every football game since the site launched last year the week of the Indiana game. I still haven't been able to write one about a Big Ten victory. That ends this week. Purdue, you are terrible. Illinois 38-17 (7-3 on the season).
Birkhead: I think the offense is going to have a great game. If any version of the offense that played Ohio State last week shows up, Illinois should score 40 against the Boilers. We finally get the monkey off of our back, and Tim Beckman pops the "champaign". Illinois 45-20 (8-2 on the season).
Cassidy: It's here. This is it. The game of the season. The game we can win! Comparisons between this years Purdue team and last year's Illini team have come up occasionally in the past month or two, and for good reason. Both teams embarrassed themselves for months on end. That's on the line this week with an Illini loss cementing two things: that the 2012 Illini were worse than Purdue AND that the 2013 Illini are worse than Purdue. And, as Dr. Seuss would say, being worse than Purdue is not a thing you'd like to do. God help us. Illinois 24-21 (6-4 on the season).