THE WHEN AND WHERE
Time: 11:00 AM Central Time - Saturday, October 4th
Place: Memorial Stadium - Champaign, Illinois
TV: ESPN2 - Beth Mowins and Joey Galloway (GUH)
ALL - ORANGE - EVERYTHING
THE INJURY REPORT
#12 Wes Lunt: Cleared to play
#28 Jaylen Dunlap: Out
#34 Mike Svetina: Out
#93 Teko Powell: Out
The big note here is that Wes Lunt is available to play. They would not have noted him on the injury report if he couldn't go (one would think...). Jaylen Dunlap continues his Year Of The Injuries, and Teko Powell is absent once again. Svetina has yet to return from his injury after last season.
Given Illinois' struggles thus far to contain running backs, it stands to reason that we should begin by taking a look at Purdue's trio. Raheem Mostert leads the Boilermakers in carries this year, but didn't see any action against Iowa last week. Mostert is billed by some as "the fastest player in college football", so he's probably somebody to look out for. That said, he's averaging just 4.4 yards per carry, which indicates he may not be much of a threat. The other guy who probably isn't much to worry about is Keyante Green. He's averaging fewer yards per carry than Mostert and has just 21 carries through five games, so Illinois won't focus much on him. He did carry several times against Iowa, but that seemed mostly to be related to the absence of Mostert.
Akeem Hunt on the other hand, has been the Boilers' best back through five weeks. Hunt is yet another impressive Big Ten back, with speed and shiftiness unmatched by other Purdue RBs. Hunt hasn't been relied on as a workhorse in any game this year, but typically seems to get 10-15 carries each outing. With those, he's acquired six yards per run, far better than any other back. Purdue's inexperienced line has actually done a decent job of blocking on run plays, especially for Hunt.
Quarterback Danny Etling is not a big running threat but Purdue will still try to run the read option against Illinois-- that is their primary running play along with zone shenanigans and the occasional power play. Purdue is only averaging 3.9 yards per carry, but that's mostly a function of the abuse Etling has taken under center this year. Etling has been sacked roughly one million times this year as the Purdue offensive line has struggled mightily to protect anything.
With such difficulties in pass protection, Purdue sticks mostly to intermediate and short passing plays. The key for Illinois, both in the run game and the pass game, is to stick to their assignments and prevent any plays from breaking wide open. This game should be approached similarly to the Western Kentuckys and Texas States of the world (teams of similar quality to Purdue): don't let the big plays beat you and take advantage of the inevitable mistakes a quarterback like Etling will make.
Purdue's defense has been the relative strength of the team thus far, if you can call it that. The D ranks 71st in the nation in S&P+, which is pretty decent when one compares it to the offense's ranking of 99th in the country. They were able to stand up to Iowa last week and prevent the Hawkeyes from gaining a single first down throughout the entire first quarter. In fact, the defense was responsible for seven of the ten Boilermaker points in last week's game.
Purdue has had a decent amount of success getting after the quarterback this year, totaling 13 sacks in 2014. Ryan Watson leads the team with four sacks thus far from the nose tackle position (weird). Interestingly, Watson isn't even listed as a starter on Purdue's depth chart. The front seven for Purdue overall is decent, but there aren't any particularly special players. Ryan Russell is supposed to be the biggest threat for the team positionally, as he plays a hybrid lineman/linebacker role, but he's only had one tackle for loss in 2014.
The leader in tackles for loss is...Anthony Brown, a starting cornerback. Brown is statistically the best player on the defense. His five TFLs lead the team as mentioned and he's also tied for the team high in pass break-ups (4) with safety Frankie Williams. Purdue's secondary is very experienced, with two juniors and two fifth-year seniors. This probably explains why the team excels at preventing big plays, probably the most successful aspect of their defense this year.
Ultimately, Purdue will be able to hold Illinois from scoring, but they should be able to move the ball. Iowa pounded away in true Ferentz fashion and was eventually able to break down the Boilermaker front seven. This group is, quite simply, susceptible to the running game. Look for Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young to have some success moving the ball in each of their unique ways. It goes against Bill Cubit's offensive ideal to keep the ball on the ground, but that seems to be the area in which Illinois will have the most success on Saturday.
THE NAME OF THE WEEK
Bearooz Yacoobi. Bearooz. Yacoobi. BEAROOZ YACOOBI. After a pretty rough outing last week, Purdue brings a solid roster of interesting names like Austin Appleby and DeAngelo Yancey. But, Bearooz Yacoobi. Bearooz Yacoobi.
THE #FATGUYTOUCHDOWN UPDATE OF THE WEEK
From last week: =(
Jake Howe still has yet to make an appearance at fullback. This makes me sad. The saddest, in fact. The #FATGUYTOUCHDOWN Alert System is at #FATCON5 this week. Maybe a defensive tackle will have a pick six or something. Sadness.
THE FIVE KEY POINTS
1. Shore up the run defense. This is a tall order for a team that has really struggled to defend the run, but it would be excellent to keep Akeem Hunt and company contained this weekend. Danny Etling is going to flounder in third-and-long situations: Illinois has to get him into those predicaments. Illinois continues to give up 100 yards to nearly every rusher they face, including two last week. The reasonable goal for tomorrow afternoon is to keep all of Purdue's running backs from individually eclipsing 100 yards. Something like a 70-40-20 yardage split would be an excellent performance for the Illini, though its certainly unrealistic.
2. Run the dang ball, Bill. Cubit has a tendency to get away from the run game after just one or two unsuccessful plays. If Iowa had done that last week, they may have lost. Keep pounding away at this front seven. I'm sure the Illini will have a little success in the passing game, but the protection probably hasn't been good enough to guarantee that Lunt stays clean against this pass rush. Keep the ball on the ground if the passing game isn't working: it's not going to cause the apocalypse to run it down their throats.
3. No turnovers. Yeah, yeah-- I could put this down every week and say it's important because the team is good or bad or whatever. I kind of have done that. Regardless, this is perhaps the most important thing for Illinois each week. The reason that Nebraska game turned from a loss into an embarrassing loss was because Reilly O'Toole threw three bad interceptions. Keeping it on the ground could help here, though we know that Lunt/Cubit are going to take a few shots down the field.
4. Safety play. As previously stated, this Purdue offense is rather incapable of creating big plays through the passing game. Tackling in the secondary will be important to prevent intermediate routes and running plays from going a long way. This has been a huuuuuuge struggle for Illinois (not necessarily the safeties, but everybody in the back seven), and it can't continue to be one against a team like Purdue. I have a feeling that they'll try to dink-and-dunk the ball down the field like most other inferior teams have against Illinois-- this has to stop working at some point and now would be a great time for that to happen.
5. Get off blocks. This point is made much easier by not having to play against Nebraska's mammoth offensive line. Those guys are really, really good and Ameer Abdullah just makes them look better. This is somewhat related to the run defense, but also applies to the pass rush. Illinois didn't get after the QB all that much last week, but had great results when they did (obviously). Etling is shaky as all hell in the pocket. Wreck his confidence by getting in his face early on and he'll struggle to do much of anything against the Illinois secondary.
An excerpt from my weekly betting post with friends on our personal blog sums this up nicely:
Illinois is slightly better than last year, as is Purdue, and though the  game at Ross Ade was close, Illinois turned the ball over four times and just about every other statistic pointed to a fairly easy win for the Illini. If somebody put a gun to my head and asked me to predict a margin of victory for this game, I would choose Illinois by at least 14 at home...but I can't. Purdue isn't good, but Illinois has struggled against weaker teams and let them hang around all year long, even at home. I'm still waiting for the solid statistical performances Illinois has had against poor opponents to turn into a true blowout, but little mistakes continue to haunt the Illini in these games. I would be shocked if Illinois lost this game, but I can't trust them to cover a spread this large. Purdue +10.5 [Ed: The line has moved.]
After thinking more, I wouldn't be shocked if Illinois lost this game, but the fact remains that Illinois is the more talented and...uh...[whispers] better coached(?) team. Their defensive line shouldn't get manhandled like they did last week against Nebraska and they should be able to run the ball. Frankly, I think Illinois should cruise to victory in this one, unless Purdue gets ahead early. That could be bad for Illinois, as it will force the Illini to stick to passing and ignore the relative weakness of the Purdue defense. The first quarter of this game could be extremely important, and we know how Illinois has done in previous weeks. This could be a comfortable win, but it's more likely an ugly nailbiter that just makes everybody a little nauseous inside. Exciting!