CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — With expectations higher than ever coming into last Saturday’s game, heartbreak ensued.
Now sitting at 7-2 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten, the Illini have yet another crucial matchup on the horizon.
On Monday afternoon at Memorial Stadium, the Illinois coaching staff addressed the media about the tough loss and what lies ahead for this team.
Illinois is coming off a 23-15 loss to Michigan State on Saturday. The Spartans were 3-5 going into Memorial Stadium, and the Illini were favored by 16.5 points — the most they’ve been favored in a Big Ten game in years.
In all facets of the game, the Illini just didn’t look like themselves. Coming into the game as the top scoring defense in the nation (8.9 ppg), Illinois started off strong with an interception on the first play of the game.
However, the rest of the game was completely controlled by the Michigan State offense. MSU’s 23 points scored matches the most points allowed by the Illinois defense this season.
“We didn’t answer the bell when we needed to,” said defensive coordinator Ryan Walters. “We didn’t make stops when we needed to make stops.”
Another big factor that made a difference on Saturday was offensive execution. The Illini were 1-for-6 on fourth down. Two of these five failures came in the red zone, one of which occurred late in the fourth quarter as the Illini were trailing by 8 points.
The lack of execution stuck with the coaches, in particular offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr.
“The bottom line is we didn’t get it done on Saturday,” Lunney said. “And that falls squarely on me.”
The Illinois offense was also 6-for-17 on third downs, leaving itself in tough spots for those fourth down tries.
“We need to play better across all positions,” Lunney said. “There’s no doubt in my mind we’ll bounce back from that.”
Last Time off a Loss
Before Saturday, Illinois was winners of six in a row — the program’s longest win streak in more than a decade.
They hadn’t lost a game since the Week 1 debacle in Bloomington.
Saturday’s loss was a little different.
“It really hurt them on Saturday to walk off the field the way they did,” Bielema said.
With the loss to the Spartans, both Illini losses have come to teams that are a combined 1-9 against the rest of the Big Ten. Losses like these hurt, but the coaches know their players will be ready for a bounce-back workweek.
“I expect them [on Tuesday] morning to be very spirited,” Bielema said. “[I’m] excited to see exactly where they’re at.”
The team knows they can’t hold their heads low, especially as they still are the front-running contender to win the Big Ten West.
“What happened last Saturday does not really impact us moving forward,” Lunney said. “I’m confident our guys will bounce back and put their best foot forward this week.”
Playing for The Cannon
With last week behind them, Illinois now shifts its focus to Purdue.
Illinois couldn’t possibly be catching Purdue at a better time. Coming off back-to-back blowout losses to Wisconsin and Iowa — both of whom Illinois already beat — Purdue is now 5-4 on the season and sits one game behind Illinois in the Big Ten West.
On the other hand, this bad stretch for the Boilermakers may make them even hungrier for a win this Saturday. Bielema and his staff knows they can’t overlook their division foe.
“This week, it’s all about Purdue,” Bielema said. “It’s an opportunity to play a trophy game; it’s an opportunity to be in the Big Ten West title race.”
Purdue is led by the highly talented duo of QB Aidan O’Connell and WR Charlie Jones. Even though O’Connell has struggled the past couple games, he still poses a major threat to any defense the Boilers face.
“He’s been there a long time,” Walters said. “He has a great understanding of where to put the ball.”
Jones, AOC’s main target, has 944 receiving yards this season and averages just over 11 per catch. Containing him will be another challenge for the secondary.
Walters stated that he can make contested grabs and that they can’t allow him to get into open space. He went on to call him a “polished receiver” and that he knows their offensive system very well.
The Boiler offense is the main threat, but Lunney knows their defense is solid too.
“[They’re] tough, physical, they look like a lot of the other Big Ten defenses,” Lunney said. “They know what they’re doing; they’re very sound in their scheme.”
A year ago, the Boilers defeated the Illini, 13-9, in a defensive slugfest.
However, this Illinois team is much different than last year’s, and Bielema knows that. He is determined to push past this loss and carry the team into Saturday.
“We’re not perfect; we’re a 7-2 team,” Bielema said. “We’re so much further along than we were a year ago.”
Kickoff against Purdue is scheduled for 11 a.m. on ESPN2.