Two weeks ago, the Illini had everything in front of them.
They held claim to the nation’s top defense, a Heisman-candidate running back who was nearly unstoppable, and a program receiving real national attention for the first time in more than a decade.
The task was simple. Win two home games, one against a Michigan State team in turmoil and another against an unraveling Purdue squad who had been outscored by 32 in its previous two games. Awaiting on the other side was a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship and a likely Top-10 ranking.
In an inexplicable turn of events, the Illini got outplayed in both games and watched their season’s goals slip right through their grasp. The Illinois team that started the season 7-1 was not the same team that took the field when the calendar turned to November.
Saturday’s 31-24 loss to Purdue was completely deflating because of the momentum and opportunity that was lost with it.
So what changed with this team?
Getting beat in the trenches
One of Illinois’ calling cards during the first 8 weeks of the season was their dominance up front on both lines. Week in and week out, Illinois proved to be the more physical team and winning in the trenches played right into Bret Bielema’s style of football.
On Saturday, Illinois was flat-out beaten up front.
The Illinois offensive line heavily contributed to season-lows in yards per carry by Chase Brown against Michigan State and Purdue (4.1 and 4.3). Illinois’ rushing attack stalled for much of the game on Saturday and forced Barry Lunney and the offense out of their gameplan.
On defense, a lack of pressure from the Illini front was extremely costly. Aidan O’Connell left the game unscathed with 0 sacks to his name and was given far too much time to throw on crucial downs.
On top of that, the Illinois defensive line allowed a pass-heavy Purdue offense to establish the run early, particularly along the edges, with a 5-play, run-only touchdown drive in the second quarter standing out as a head scratcher for a defense that’s been so sound against the run all season. Devin Mockabee’s 108-yard day on the ground really hurt the Illini.
Lack of discipline
Some of them were horrible calls, and believe me I’ll get to those soon, but 12 penalties for 121 yards just cannot happen in a game of this magnitude. Illinois was undisciplined all day and the self-inflicted wounds that we thought had been corrected since Indiana resurfaced in a big way during these two November letdowns.
One sequence in particular will not be fun to watch back in the film room this week, I would imagine.
Illinois had just tied the game at 21 late in the third quarter. It felt like momentum had started to shift back to the Illini even with how frustrating things had been all afternoon.
With the Illinois defense looking for a stop, Calvin Avery gets called for a hands-to-the-face personal foul after a very short Purdue gain. Two plays later on 2nd and 10, Illinois flushes O’Connell out and forces him to throw the ball away, only for Johnny Newton to hit him late and pick up a roughing the passer penalty. That’s two veterans costing you 30 yards on a crucial defensive drive because of boneheaded, extremely avoidable mistakes. And it happened to be the drive that ended in Purdue’s game-winning touchdown.
Alex Palczewski, the Big Ten’s all-time leader in starts, got called for two false starts, one of which costing Illinois a chance to go for a 4th and short.
These types of mental errors weren’t happening during Illinois’ 6-game winning streak but have been a common theme during their 3 losses.
Injuries play a key role
Two important Illini injuries were a key factor against Purdue.
Seth Coleman did not dress for the game after leaving with an injury against Michigan State and his presence was sorely missed on the edge. He would’ve certainly helped the Illini get more pressure on Aidan O’Connell and made him less comfortable in the pocket.
Purdue attacked his replacement Alec Bryant’s side often in the run game as well and had big success in the first half, an area where Coleman had been playing extremely well before injury.
Another injury that really bit the Illini was Taz Nicholson leaving midway through the first quarter. Illinois has been extremely fortunate this season that its secondary has stayed primarily healthy because the lack of depth was a large concern during the offseason. Well, guess what, their lack of depth came into play in the most important game of the season.
Purdue exploited the matchup with true freshman Xavier Scott, who was forced into action at cornerback for Illinois, and the Boilers had success in the second half doing so. Nicholson had been playing his best football recently and would’ve helped neutralize Purdue’s TJ Sheffield, who had 6 catches for 72 yards primarily on Scott, and redshirt freshman Tyler Strain (who also left with an injury).
Inexcusable officiating can’t be ignored
If somebody tells you the officials didn’t play a major role in Saturday’s outcome, they’re lying to you. It was an absolutely pathetic display that cost Illinois during multiple critical moments.
This is truly an egregious call in every way. Devon Witherspoon makes a perfect play on the football and does nothing close to interfering with Charlie Jones on this play. An absolute game-changer that stripped the Illini of possession with a chance to go up two scores, and instead led to a Purdue touchdown on the very next play.
Third down, tied at 21, biggest drive of the game, and pass interference is called on Xavier Scott here. There’s minimal contact made AND the ball is a good 3 yards in front of the receiver. What are we doing here?
Same drive, textbook coverage by Sydney Brown, but wait, ref tosses another flag on the field for PI. This could not have been played more perfectly. Horrific, inexcusable, extremely costly penalty while the Illini defense was already trying to overcome the OTHER awful call made right before it.
Big Ten officiating continues to amaze with their incompetence.
Regardless, Illinois needed to be a lot better than they were on Saturday and will now have to sit with the fact that they let a trip to Indianapolis slip out of their own hands.
A frigid Senior Day at Memorial Stadium unfortunately ends in disappointment.