We all want to quickly forget the dismal performance the Illini put forth last week at Wisconsin, but this week doesn’t get any easier for the Illini.
Purdue is coming off a down season last year plagued by injuries and lackluster play, but it got off on the right foot in Week One. Purdue is coming off a hard-fought, impressive win against Iowa. The Boilermakers used a balanced attack against the Hawkeyes, recording almost 300 yards passing and over 100 yards rushing.
However, they conceded 460 yards to the Hawkeyes last week, providing some hope for an Illini offense that managed just 218 yards of offense in the season opener.
Here’s how this Purdue squad shakes out.
This Purdue squad is coming off an injury-plagued 2019 season and entered the year with uncertainty at quarterback. It remains to be seen whether All-American Rondale Moore (114 catches, 1,258 yards, and 12 touchdowns a year ago) will return this week, as head coach Jeff Brohm remains tight lipped on his status.
The Boilermakers return experienced runningback Alexander Horvath (377 yards, two TDs last season), who had a strong start with 129 yards on the ground on 21 carries last week against Iowa. Sophomore receiver David Bell, coming off a strong season where he had 8 TDs and 6 games of more than 100 yards receiving in Purdue’s final 9 games, picked up where he left off with 121 yards and 3 TDs last week, making up for Moore’s absence.
Quarterback Aidan O’Connell (1,101 yards, eight TDs, four interceptions last season) gained valuable experience last season with three starts following Elijah Sindelar’s injury and built upon that success in against Iowa, passing for 282 yards and 3 TDs. He may solidify his starting spot against other QBs Jack Plummer (1,603 yards, 11 TDs, eight interceptions in 6 games last season) and UCLA grad transfer Austin Burton (365 yards and a TD in one start last season) with a repeat of that performance. With three returning starters, the veteran experience along the offense line was evident last week, albeit without the star power and fanfare that the Ohio State and Wisconsin linemen receive yearly.
As Brohm continues to incorporate younger players in his offensive line rotation, Purdue will continue building experienced depth behind their starters in what appears to be an improved offensive unit this season.
The defense remains a work in progress for Purdue, as evidenced by their abysmal 460 yards allowed to Iowa last week. New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco inherits a squad that ranked second last in the Big Ten in total defense (436.3 yards per game) and 12th against the run (192.5 yards per game).
Sophomore defensive end George Karlaftis (7.5 sacks last season) should be a key building block in improving that defense, recording 3 total tackles against Iowa. Fellow end Derrick Barnes also turned in a 7.5 sack season last year and should continue on that trajectory this season. Senior defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal returns from a season-ending ankle injury last season and should help stuff the run more effectively this season.
Questions remain for the linebacking group, although Barnes will be moving back to help plug their holes at the second level. Transfer DaMarcus Mitchell could also make an immediate impact in the run game. The secondary has some ball hawking ability returning with both corners Cory Trice and Dedrick Mackey recording 3 INTs last season, and safety will see an infusion of physicality with UConn graduate transfer Tyler Coyle in the fold, after leading the Huskies in tackles two of the last three seasons.
As Diaco works to mold his players in his new scheme, this defense should see some flashes of improvement over a year ago, but some questions still remain about schematic fit and playmaking at the linebacker spots and lack of experience and depth at safety.
Purdue continued the overhaul on their staff with new Special Teams Coordinator Marty Biagi, known for some creative trick plays and elite kicking units in stops most recently at North Texas, who’s tasked with improving Purdue’s return game from 11th in the Big ten on punt returns (5.6 YPC) and last in kickoff returns (15.8 YPC) in 2019.
Purdue returns veteran kicker JD Dellinger, who made 13 of 16 field goals, including 11 of 12 inside 40 yards, and made all 35 PATs a year ago. Brooks Cormier is back at punter and had a strong week one, averaging 47.5 yards per punt and 2 punts over 50 yards. Purdue’s return game is likely awaiting the return of Rondale Moore and his dynamic playmaking. In the meantime, TJ Sheffield and Milton Wright shared duties against Iowa, but Geovonte Howard, David Bell, Alexander Horvath, and King Doerue could all see some time receiving kicks.
What to Expect:
Purdue’s playmaking corners and revitalized defensive front could give the Illini fits in the run and pass game. The Illini need to dramatically improve their coverage in the secondary to give themselves a chance, and given Purdue’s success against Iowa, it may be another tough week for the Illini pass defense.
Should the Illini continue creating turnovers as they did last season and find some success on the ground with Epstein and others to take the pressure off Brandon Peters, the Illini could find themselves in thick of things in the fourth quarter. Purdue’s defensive performance a week ago gives me hope that we will see a more dynamic offensive performance from the Illini, but they will need to slow down Purdue’s passing attack to have a chance, which they proved ill-equipped to do against Wisconsin.
As 2019 showed us, Illini performances dramatically vary from game to game, and here’s to hoping we will see an Illini shocker to jumpstart this 2020 campaign!