In 2017, the Illini were only able to remain competitive in conference games against Indiana, Rutgers and Minnesota. Though a drastic turnaround next season is unlikely, more competitive play from the Illini against conference foes must be seen in the 2018 season.
The 2018 slate does feature games against Rutgers and Minnesota, but the October 13 Homecoming matchup with Purdue seems to be the best opportunity for the Illini to record their first conference victory since the 31-27 win against Michigan State on November 5, 2016.
Just as the Illini struggled to remain competitive while playing record numbers of freshmen on both sides of the ball in 2017, Purdue rode a bevy of experienced seniors to a 6-6 record and a bowl invitation in head coach Jeff Brohm’s first season.
Much of the Boilermakers’ attrition lies on its defense, as Purdue loses eight of its top 12 tacklers to graduation. Put another way, 393 of the 629 tackles made by Purdue’s top 12 tacklers in 2017 were made by players who will not be on the team in 2018.
On offense, the Boilermakers lose receivers Anthony Mahoungou, who led the team in receiving yards last season, and Gregory Phillips. However, it will be difficult for the Illini to contain returning running back Markell Jones, who showcased his speed and strength during the 2017 Purdue-Indiana rivalry matchup:
This game will be a major test for Lovie Smith and his staff, as the Illini should be able to demonstrate their added experience and take advantage of the Purdue’s attrition to notch a much-needed Big Ten win.