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‘Been talking about this game’: Illinois ready for familiar face in Walters, Purdue

The battle for the Cannon is upon us.

Brad Repplinger // TCR

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — With non-conference play officially over, Illinois finds itself with a 2-2 record.

Following Saturday’s 23-17 win over FAU, Illinois’ coaching staff addressed the media Monday at Memorial Stadium ahead of the upcoming matchup against Purdue.

Scraping by FAU

On paper, Illinois probably should have won by more than they did against the Owls of Florida Atlantic. Coming in as 15.5-point favorites, the expectation was that against a 1-2 team with a backup quarterback, there shouldn’t be much to worry about. Right?

Well, that wasn’t the case — but hey, ugly wins are still wins. All that matters to the team is they went 1-0 that game.

“Obviously we won,” said defensive coordinator Aaron Henry. “At the end of the day that’s probably the thing I look forward to the most is a win, no matter how you got it.”

In what was not the greatest-looking performance from the offense, players like Luke Altmyer and Isaiah Williams stepped up.

Offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. praised Altmyer for recovering nicely from his four-interception game the week before.

“I was impressed by the way he bounced back,” Lunney said. “Thought he played a nice game.”

Williams — who tied a career-high in receiving yards with 120 — then received some well-deserved comments later on from head coach Bret Bielema.

“When that guy touches ball, he not only excites the crowd, he excites our players,” Bielema said. “When he plays well, we play well.”

But like mentioned, it was not the prettiest game whatsoever for the Illini offense. Lunney knows it himself.

“The name of the game for offense is scoring and that’s the one thing that we didn’t do the other day,” he said. “That performance could’ve been or should’ve been a 31-to-35-point performance.”

Defensively, a big issue for Illinois was FAU receiver LaJohntay Wester. His 137 receiving yards and a touchdown gave lots of troubles to the Illinois secondary. All Aaron Henry could do was tip his cap, but knows his secondary needs to learn from facing a guy like Wester.

“That kid’s a stud man,” Henry said. “We doubled him every third down. If I could do it over again I probably would’ve had a better plan to double him on early downs.”

There’s lots of things to learn from whether or good or bad — but like mentioned, even ugly wins are wins. With bigger and tougher things ahead for the Illini, this game was put in the rearview mirror almost instantly.

“Put the game behind us pretty quickly on Sunday,” Bielema said. “Actually shortened our review time and extended our preparation time.”

Defensive growth

After the first two games of the season, Illinois’ defense — under new defensive coordinator Aaron Henry — did not look like it did whatsoever a season ago. Combining for an allowed 62 points raised a lot of questions within Illini nation.

These past couple of games though, there’s been improvements shown.

A big one being the leadership of Johnny Newton. Although you didn’t hear his name called too often last game. Why? He was getting double or triple teamed the whole game.

“I’m surprised it took to game [three and four] to do it,” said Henry about teams focusing on Newton.

Immediately after, he said this: “We’re going to continue to see younger guys step up.”

There’s also the issue of bouncing back from losing NFL talent like Devon Witherspoon, Sydney Brown and Quan Martin in the secondary. On top of that, Matt Bailey — who was expected to be a if not THE leader in the secondary — is out for the season.

Both are big challenges for Henry and the defense, but there’s always a plan.

“We move guys around a lot for these exact, potential issues,” Henry said. “The reasons we don’t call them safeties or corners — we call them DB’s — is because the way our system is set up is for guys to play multiple positions.”

All we need to do is continue to trust the process of Henry as defensive coordinator (would highly recommend reading the below article if you haven’t).

Paying a visit to an old “friend”

When Illinois and Purdue face off against one another, the Cannon is always on the line. This year though, it’s going to mean a little bit more than usual.

Purdue’s new head coach of course is former Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, who recently took over the program after the departure of Jeff Brohm (Louisville).

“That’s my guy man, that’s my guy,” said Henry on Walters.

Aaron Henry was Walters’ defensive backs coach for the last two seasons, and Henry is very stoked to throw out his defense against his good buddy.

“We get a chance to go compete against each other, which I’m really ecstatic and excited about,” Henry said. “And I know he’s an ultimate competitor just like myself.”

The Boilermakers are currently 1-3 and recently got throttled at home Friday night by Wisconsin 38-17. Neither side’s record matters in this contest though, and Lunney made that clear.

“We’ve just got to worry about us,” he said. “We’ve got to worry about putting our best foot forward, going on the road, playing the defending Big Ten West champions in a trophy game.”

Illinois has lost the last three matchups with Purdue, and that has given a lot of internal motivation to this team. In hindsight, last year’s loss is what basically clinched the Big Ten West for Purdue.

“We’ve been really talking about this game from last year’s season end to where we are because we knew it was going to be the first Big Ten West opponent of the year,” Bielema said.

Kickoff from West Lafayette is at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.