On Every Day Should Be Saturday, the seminal college football blog over at SBNation, each school has a meme attached to it in the comments section. Ron Zook is, pretty obviously, the fulcrum for Fighting Illini mockery at EDSBS. Purdue is not completely unacknowledged, but the joke is that they don’t actually exist (or no one knows they exist). This pretty much sums up the relative places of the two programs in the college football firmament. Illinois has won 5 national titles, none since 1951; Purdue has won one, in 1931. The two teams are both below .500 all time in Big Ten play; of the current Big Ten schools (discounting Nebraska) Purdue is 6th all time and Illinois places 8th. Illinois is synonymous with Dick Butkus and Red Grange; Purdue is known for Rod Woodson and Bob Griese. All great players, granted, but it kind of sums up the recent state of the two programs-living off past glories barely remembered. So let’s take a look at the present.
The Seasons, Thus Far
The Fighting Illini had been on a joyous (if precarious) romp through their first 6 games, garnering a 6-0 record with several tight victories. That all came to an end last week. Ohio State ran the ball and ran the ball and ran it some more, completing 1 (that’s one, o-n-e) pass enroute to a 17-7 defeat of Illinois. This devotion to and excellence at running was something the Illini had not previously encountered. Through the first four games of the season, Illinois had given up a total of 225 yards rushing. Ohio State gained 211 yards. Ohio State managed just 17 yards through the air. If you represented the total passing yardage surrendered by the Illini this season as the distance between the Alma Mater in Urbana and Buckingham Fountain in Chicago, Ohio State would have gotten to roughly the intersection of Springfield and Pine in Champaign. The Buckeyes could have enjoyed a facial courtesy of the esteemed Rickey Cummings of The Body Therapy Shop but, since they didn’t have an appointment, they would have gotten back on that bus and still found themselves 136 miles from the Loop. Not all is gloomy in Urbana-Champaign, however. The Illini have an attacking defense led by the aptly named Whitney Mercilius, the current national leader in sacks. They also have an efficient offense led by Manning award watch list addition Nathan Scheelhaase.
Purdue’s season has not been quite so rosy. The Boilermakers started with a squeaker against Middle Tennessee State, one which blanched faces around the Big Ten. Especially at Nebraska and Wisconsin, who were seeing their hopes of a high berth in the BCS sweepstakes potentially dashed on the capricious rocks of Strength of Schedule. Purdue then promptly dropped one at Rice, delivered a brutal kicking to SEMo, were brutally kicked by Notre Dame and lost 2 of their first three in the B1G. It is the last of these losses that concerns us Illini. Purdue managed to hang in against PSU for four quarters in Happy Valley. The Boilermakers mounted a relatively balanced attack, throwing the ball 30 times and attempting 33 rushes. The achilles heel (caps here? let me know in the comments section) for Purdue was interceptions; Caleb TerBush (wasn’t he a Nixon press secretary or something?) tossed 3 picks, two of which were in his own end of the field. This led to 10 PSU points, and the third INT ended the game for the Boilermakers. The Purdue defense is a pretty decent unit, ranking 40th in total defense, but it is completely incapable of pressuring the quarterback as is evidenced by their #105 ranking in sacks. The offense is heavily run-dependent. The Boilermakers depend on a twoish-headed animal (not yet a monster) at running back, Ralph Bolden and Akeem Shavers. Their secret weapon is their outstanding punter (shades of Weatherford?) who boasts a 47.8 yard per punt average.
The Three Fulcra:
1. Nathan Scheelhaase vs the Purdue pass-not-in-a-big-hurry.
You can’t really call it a pass rush when you’ve got a total of 6 sacks in seven games. Purdue managed to down the SEMo quarterback twice and the Minnesota
State QB once, so they only have three sacks against FCS competition. (I’m giving Rice the benefit of the doubt here.) The Illini are not very good at preventing sacks when one looks at the statistics; actually, worse than Purdue. However, it is my belief that much of that can be attributed to Petrino’s frequent use of the option look. Scheelhaase has shown that he can throw quite well when he gets the time, and he should have ample amounts of it against Purdue. Look for Nathan to have a big game. EDGE: Illini.
2. Caleb TerBush vs the Illini pass rush ferocity
The Fighting Illini, on the other hand, have a full-grown monster of a pass rush. Mercilius, Buchanan and Brown (sounds like a great personal-injury firm) have the Illini at the top of the Big Ten and fifth in the nation in sacks. Each of the three rank in the top five in the conference in sacks per game. Purdue is fairly bad at preventing sacks, ranking 87th in that category. Purdue is actually worse when you take out the FCS game against SEMo; the Boilermakers have given up 15 sacks in 5 games against FCS competition. Perhaps there is a systemic reason why Purdue has started 5 different quarterbacks in the last calendar year. “Purdue Quarterback” should be a separate high-risk actuarial category, given the immense hazards of the position. Add the two trends together, and you should have quite the feast for Whitney and the boys. EDGE: Illini.
3. Purdue special teams vs Illinois “special” teams
Remember when I mentioned Achilles up above? Well, the Illinois special teams are the whole Trojan War. Misery everywhere. Punt returning? Lankford has twelve for 38 yards, while Purdue’s returner boasts a far more robust 9.5 yards per return. The Fighting Illini’s average field position is 5 yards worse than its opponents. Purdue is solid in the special teams phase and enjoys the services of Cody Webster, a sophomore punter who has a monster leg. Illinois’s lone shining star on special teams is Derek Dimke. He just doesn’t miss. He’ll more than likely join Neil Rackers in the NFL next year. EDGE: Boilermakers.
Sagarin has us by about 6.
Howell has us as a 2 to 1 favorite straight up.
The oddsmakers have installed us as a 9-point favorite.
My assessment (unscientific, of course): Illinois 29, Purdue 23.
Illini football will be victorious on Saturday.