In a couple days, the Illinois Fighting Illini will head into West Lafayette to battle the Purdue Boilermakers for the Purdue Cannon. In doing so, this young team will try to break a lengthy streak of losing Big Ten games.
Four years ago, the Illini carried an incredible 20-game Big Ten losing streak into Ross-Ade Stadium. It was such a long losing streak that the team looked vastly different. The team that defeated Northwestern in 2011 to win their last conference game for over two years was a run-first team with a very stout defense. By the time the Cannon game came in 2013, Illinois had upgraded the anemic 2011 offense to an effective passing attack, but had become one of the worst defenses I’ve ever seen against the run.
Case-in-point: on the fourth play of the game, Purdue’s Akeem Hunt ripped off an untouched 62-yard touchdown run. Senior Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase responded on the next drive by finding surprise breakout star Steve Hull in the end zone to tie the game. Danny Etling had a response of his own, leading the Boilermakers back into the end zone on the next drive.
Scheelhaase’s arm and legs, as well as the running of Josh Ferguson, led the Illini down to field goal range on the ensuing possession...where he was intercepted. Fortunately, the Illini defense forced a three-and-out thanks to a backfield tackle by Zane Petty, and a bad punt set up Illinois around midfield. Steve Hull struck again and Taylor Zalewski tied the game at 14 with an extra point six seconds into the second quarter.
From this point on, this game became a hideous slog.
Raheem Mostert returned the next kickoff for 16 yards before being stripped of the ball, but just as the Illinois sideline got excited, Hunt recovered and ran out to midfield. A punter’s duel then broke out in the middle of the track meet as the offenses stalled until a Spencer Harris fumble set up Purdue inside the Illini 30. They took this possession inside the 10 before backing up due to penalties and missing a 35-yard field goal.
A promising drive to open the second half ended with star Purdue corner Ricardo Allen intercepting Scheelhaase at the 2-yard line. The defense, led by senior Jonathan Brown, came up with another stop, but as is so often the case, the Illini return man muffed the punt and it was recovered by the kicking team. (Sidenote: I’d love to go a whole season without one of those). Purdue took this second chance at this drive and turned it over on downs, leaving the score still at 14-14.
Illinois had turned the ball over four times, but on the ensuing punt (because offense was no longer possible at this point), it was Purdue’s turn to take points off the board. Frankie Williams (no, not that one) returned the punt for a touchdown, but it was nullified by an illegal block in the back all the way back at the Purdue 21.
With the fourth quarter starting, Scheelhaase took command, converting a 2nd and 22 induced by back-to-back penalties into a 42-yarder to Steve Hull to set up a field goal to take the lead. After getting a stop, the Illini nearly took a comfortable lead, but a gadget play with Steve Hull passing to Scheelhaase failed to get in from the 5 and they settled for another field goal. After some punts, Purdue drove to the red zone with under two minutes to play, where V’Angelo Bentley picked off Etling to nearly ice the game. A Steve Hull run-around-and-burn-out-the-clock safety preserved the 20-16 victory.
What ensued after finally getting Tim Beckman’s first Big Ten victory is the subject of one of my favorite Illinois football videos ever:
In an odd bit of trivia, every pass Scheelhaase threw was caught by someone. His two incompletions were to the defense. His leadership, experience and skill were key to the win, and unfortunately this Illini team doesn’t have a quarterback with his abilities. However, they do have a more effective defense than the 2013 squad. Anything’s possible. Take back the Cannon!