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‘It’s a unique challenge’: Illinois prepares for top-5 foe

This is a BIG one.

Brad Repplinger // TCR

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois has a lot of adversity staring them in the face.

Following two straight losses, the coaching staff addressed the media Monday afternoon at Memorial Stadium.

With their backs against the wall, and with stakes higher than ever, how will the Illini respond?

Boiler Blues

Saturday’s loss to Purdue really hurt Illinois’ chances to play in the Big Ten Championship Game.

“Second week in a row I had to face the fellas in a somber mood,” said head coach Bret Bielema.

Just two weeks ago, Illinois controlled its own destiny to make it to Indianapolis. Two wins against Michigan State and Purdue would’ve given the program its first Big Ten West title, but back-to-back losses leave Illinois fans perplexed.

An Illini defense that was No. 1 (now No. 3) in the nation looked anything but. Purdue QB Aidan O’Connell threw FIVE interceptions in his previous three games, but fired off three passing touchdowns Saturday to lead his team to victory.

Tommy DeVito had his lowest completion percentage all season (min. 15 attempts). Chase Brown had his lowest yardage total and second-fewest yards per attempt of the season. These struggles came against a Purdue defense that ranks toward the bottom of the Big Ten.

What happened to this team?

Although the answer remains unclear, one thing is for certain: a big factor holding the Illini back on Saturday was penalties. Flags riddled the field in the loss, and most of them went against Illinois. Bielema’s squad had 12 penalties for 121 yards, easily setting a season-high.

Five of the 12 were pass interference penalties. Only four had been called in the previous nine games.

“Those things can’t happen,” said defensive coordinator Ryan Walters. “We’ve got to look at ourselves in the mirror and own up to those.”

There was one call that really stood above the rest, though. Late in the first half, CB Devon Witherspoon picked off O’Connell, but ‘Spoon’ was flagged for pass interference on the play.

Purdue scored a touchdown on the very next play to tie the game at 14.

Illinois fans may remember a crucial call by the same officiating crew earlier in the season against Indiana. Those two things go Illinois’ way, who knows where they’d be at.

We can debate hypotheticals all day, but it doesn’t change the fact that these coaches know they can’t get stuck in the past.

“Bottom line is we’re a 7-3 football team who’s lost three games by one score,” Bielema said.

“As a head coach, I’m disappointed in the results, but not where we’re at.”

Injury Plagued Illini

A handful of Illini went down in Saturday’s loss, most notably star RB Chase Brown.

Brown’s status for the future is still unknown, and this recent development is indicative of the battle Illinois has faced in the past few weeks.

Backup RB Josh McCray was seen in a walking boot last Saturday. Elite defensive lineman Seth Coleman was out with a concussion, and WR Pat Bryant remains in concussion protocol.

To make matters even worse, Bielema confirmed Monday that CB Taz Nicholson is out for the season after dislocating his wrist in the loss.

While these injuries leave fans wondering how Illinois will be able to bounce back in a big way, Bielema did share some optimistic news regarding his 1-2 running back duo of Brown and McCray.

“Both of those guys are trending in the right direction,” Bielema said. “Very positive and excited, but [I] don’t know where we’ll be by Friday.”

Bielema also added that Coleman cleared concussion protocol last Thursday and will be available to play this Saturday.

The Big House Awaits

Uh oh.

The Illini are in new territory. In 10 games this season, they have yet to play a ranked team. That will change this Saturday.

The Michigan Wolverines are 10-0 and have an average win differential of 30.2 points.

Yeah. You read that right.

To say the Illini have a challenge on their hands is a total understatement.

“It is a unique challenge,” said offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. “You’re this deep into the season, 10 games into it, and you’ve done what they’ve done statistically. It’s pretty phenomenal.”

Prior to the past couple weeks, Illinois was the leading scoring defense in the country. Michigan has now taken over that No. 1 spot, only allowing 11.2 points per game.

Lunney knows that this Wolverine defense is no joke.

“You turn the film on and they back it up,” Lunney said. “You can’t play as good of defense as they play without it being very detailed and organized.”

The Michigan defense is elite, but its offense is just as good, if not better.

Led behind QB JJ McCarthy and RB Blake Corum, the Wolverines rank second in the Big Ten in scoring and total offense. Ryan Walters’ defense is going to be put up against its toughest task so far this season.

“They’re No. 3 in the country for a reason,” Walters said. “They play really well together.”

After failing against the likes of Payton Thorne and Aidan O’Connell, dealing with both McCarthy and Corum doesn’t bode well for the Illini. They’ll need to play a near perfect game on Saturday to pull off a major road upset, and the past couple weeks should motivate them to play their hearts out.

“We’re going to have to use the disappointment and the pain from the last couple weeks to propel us forward,” Lunney said.

Kickoff against the Wolverines on Saturday is at 11 a.m. on ABC.