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Purdue Cannon: Illinois looks to win its third straight in West Lafayette

Illinois and Purdue have split the last four meetings. The Illini have won the last two at Ross-Ade Stadium.

Purdue v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The Illinois Fighting Illini travel to West Lafayette, Indiana to take on the Purdue Boilermakers in the battle for the Purdue Cannon. Here are some of the key matchups we are watching out for this week.

Illinois run defense vs. Purdue four-headed rushing attack

Every Big Ten coach wants to establish the run. Purdue doesn’t have a workhorse, go-to running back this early in first-year head coach Jeff Brohm’s tenure. Brohm is part of the Bobby Petrino coaching tree, which usually means one thing: Pass, pass, pass. The 2017 Purdue Boilermakers have the 10th best rushing offense in the Big Ten.

Illinois played a lot better against the run last week versus Wisconsin. Still in Big Ten play, the Illini rank dead last in run defense heading into this rivalry game. Purdue gets it done with four primary running backs: Juniors Markell Jones and D.J. Knox and sophomores Tario Fuller and Richie Worship.

Richie Worship in particular (and quite literally) is a load to handle and he poses a significant challenge to the Illinois front seven. The running back/fullback weighs 260 pounds and is nimble enough to wiggle through containment gaps. Against Illinois last season, Richie Worship did this:

The Illini must take positive lessons from the close loss to the Badgers last week. Stop the run, the rest will take care of itself.

Illinois’ conservative approach vs. Purdue’s daring trickery

Lovie Smith and Jeff Brohm actually go way back and have known each other for years. Smith has brought a lot of conservative, NFL-influenced decision making to the college game. Some examples include icing kickers, punting in the opponents territory and having lighter practices where players aren’t required to tackle. Lovie tries to keep things simple, straight-forward and conservative, and that’s usually a recipe for success in the Big Ten (see Kirk Ferentz at Iowa and Paul Chryst at Wisconsin).

Jeff Brohm has shown he has more tricks up his sleeve than any coach in the Big Ten. Reverses, double reverses, flea flickers, unconventional screen passes, wildcat formations — Purdue is really capable of anything at anytime and that alone can keep defenses off-balance.

Here’s a perfect example of that:

All week in practice the Illini coaches have to be preaching discipline and containment. A trick play can be the difference in a close game. Purdue can pound the rock and lull defenses asleep before trying something completely out of the box.

Illinois offensive awareness vs. Purdue ILB Ja’Whaun Bentley

Purdue senior linebacker and defensive captain Ja’Whaun Bentley is an anchor for this Purdue defense. He leads the Boilermakers in tackles and is in on the action every single play. He’s as big as most defensive ends at 260 pounds and can force turnovers in a variety of different ways.

Whether it’s Jeff George Jr., Cam Thomas or even Chayce Crouch at quarterback, the Illini offense has to be aware of Ja’Whaun Bentley’s presence.

Cam Thomas will continue to see action against Purdue, and he’s got to throw the ball otherwise Bentley and the Boilermakers defense will key in on the run. Thomas has almost as many interceptions (three) as he has completions (four), a clear indication the Illini are in a world of trouble at the quarterback position.