After a tough road loss to Nebraska, the Illinois Fighting Illini are back home this weekend as they're set to take on the Purdue Boilermakers. It isn't exactly a matchup of conference juggernauts, but this game is extremely important as a potential bowl birth could be at stake for Illinois. Let's give a warm welcome to Travis MIller of Hammer and Rails as he joins us to answer our questions.
1. Purdue's struggles over the past few seasons have been well documented. What were your expectations coming into the year? Also, have you seen any improvement from the team?
I tend to have higher expectations than most people, mostly because I know teams like Purdue try to schedule at least three wins in the non-conference thanks to the MAC and FCS. This year's schedules was much easier, at least on the non-conference side, than last year, so I was hoping for a 3-1 non-conference season and I felt like Purdue had a semi-reasonable shot at winning three conference games to squeeze into a bowl game.
Obviously, that did not happen. There has been some improvement when you figure that Purdue really couldn't have been much worse last year. They have had some moments where they look good, but the Central Michigan and Iowa games were disappointing in that they let winnable games get away. Central was a comedy of errors because I counted at least 10 majors mistakes in the form of turnovers, dumb penalties, dropped passes, etc. that cost them. Against Iowa the offense was just horrid for the final three quarters.
I still think it is a step forward though. We have won two games (yes, against much weaker competition) comfortably when last year even beating a 1-11 FCS was a struggle. I think if the Boilers can grab a conference win or two it will be a step forward overall. I still had hopes for a bowl game if we had been able to beat Iowa because Northwestern, Indiana, and Illinois looked like winnable games, but I think going forward if we see offensive improvement and Purdue manages to play someone like Michigan State or Nebraska tough that will be a plus.
2. It's just his 2nd year as Head Coach, but is Darrell Hazell in jeopardy of losing his job? If not, how much longer do you think he has to start producing results?
There are some fans that want him gone already, but I don't think he has a realistic chance of being canned. He is playing with over 70 freshmen and sophomores on the roster and, when you look at things with an unjaded eye, there has been improvement. Last week against Iowa the defense played really, really well. They just completely ran out of gas because the offense did them no favors and they were on the field for 20 minutes of the second half, most of the time when it was either tied or we were down 7.
The Boilers just need to get more out of their quarterback. Overall, Danny Etling has regressed. He might even be replaced this week by Austin Appleby, who has some spot duty in a few games, but has never started. I am excited to see what true freshman David Blough can do in the future. He enrolled early and went through spring practice, so he has been around more than most freshmen. He's been called the most accurate QB we have and he looked decent in the spring game. He is also from Central Texas and idolized the last QB we got from Central Texas (some guy named Brees, who is pretty good).
Blough is redshirting this year unless an emergency pushes him to the field, but he has drawn a lot of comparisons to Brees. If someone, Etling, Appleby, Blough, or four-star commit Elijah Sindelar coming in 2015 can produce I think Purdue could make a big jump in 2015.
3. Who are Purdue's playmakers on offense?
Well, judging by last week, no one. There has been almost zero consistency from everyone on the offense. Raheem Mostert, the Big Ten track champion in 100 and 200, started strong, but didn't even play last week because of fumbles. Both he and Akeem Hunt are speedy, shifty backs, but Purdue has struggled to get them the ball in space. Keyante Green has had some moments as a between-the-tackles runner in the last two games. Danny Anthrop and DeAngelo Yancey are good receivers, but Etling cannot get them the ball right now.
4. Do the Boilermakers have any players on the defensive side that Illini fans should worry about?
Ryan Watson is one of the Big Ten leaders in sacks, but had two each in both of Purdue's wins. True freshman Gelen Robinson (son of the Big Dog!) is coming on as a rush end and had a big sack last week. The best player has been Frankie Williams. He has a pair of interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and has been the leader on defense. He also is one of the top punt returners in the Big Ten. Seniors Landon Feichter and Sean Robinson have also been playing really well.
As I said earlier, the defense has been playing well. Really, they had moments where they played well last season too. The offense just leaves them on the field too long.
5. What's your opinion of Illinois heading into the game? Which players on our side do you view as the biggest threat?
I am viewing it pretty much as a must-win. By your own admission you don't think Illinois has improved much. Purdue, as bad as they were, only lost by four last season and that's because they did nothing offensively after going in front 14-7. I see the Illinois run defense and I think, "If we can't run this week we can't run on anyone." That's what I thought last year too and we still managed to do nothing after the first quarter.
Wes Lunt scares me because Purdue is terrible on third downs. He has the ability to keep drives alive and judging by your comeback wins, he seems to get better as the game goes on. No lead is safe with a guy like that. He has already saved you three times and Purdue is not good enough to sit on any lead yet.
6. What's your prediction for Saturday's matchup?
Loser gets last place in the West? I kind of feel like it will be a little like last season when both teams were so bad it made for a close, entertaining game. Each team feels like it can actually beat the other, and that is not a position both of these teams have been in much lately. I think it is a game that is within a score late, but Illinois has the edge with the better quarterback right now.
Thank you to Travis for taking the time to answer our questions! Make sure to check out Hammer and Rails for more coverage as we approach Saturday's game.