CHAMPAIGN – With one kick, Purdue has gone from a team on a five-game skid with questions about its head coach to a team in the hunt for a bowl berth.
Last Saturday’s 27-24 win over Iowa breathed life into the Boilermakers (4-6 overall, 1-5 Big Ten). Win out – today at Illinois and next week against Indiana – and they’ll be headed to a bowl.
“I would really like to get this team to a bowl game,” said quarterback Robert Marve, whose career has been marred by repeated knee injuries. “It’s been a long road, and if we can finish strong at the end, it would really mean a lot to me.”
What Illinois wouldn’t give for a little of that optimism headed into today’s game, the last one at home this season.
Last week, the Illini lost, 17-3, to Minnesota, a win that gave bowl eligibility to a Gophers team that could barely throw the ball and one that will finish at or near the bottom of the Big Ten’s Leaders Division. And the 14-point loss was as close as Illinois has come to a win in their seven-game losing streak.
The Illini (2-9, 0-6) are the only Big Ten team without a conference win this season, and they haven’t won in the league in more than a year.
“It hurts, but there’s no point on dwelling on it,” said freshman linebacker Mason Monheim, the team’s leading tackler and one of the bright spots for Illinois. “You have to bounce back, and if you’re going to dwell on it, you’re going to keep losing.”
While coach Tim Beckman’s job security doesn’t appear to be in doubt – he’s in his first year – it’s been a long season, filled with blowouts. Players have complained about being confused by play calls and the defense surprisingly went from being one of the nation’s best to one of the Big Ten’s worst.
Boilermakers coach Danny Hope said he sees talent in Illinois’ defense and chalked up the struggles to the growing pains of having a first-year staff.
“There’s some newness about the systems they’re employing this season,” he said. “They’re very, very talented on defense. Similar to our defense, very, very talented, but they’re doing a lot of things for the first time. They have new coordinators, a new staff. So some new things. So it’s been a developmental process.”
He expects them to bring heavy pressure – Illinois’ pass rush has improved as the season has progressed – and believes the Boilermakers will have to be able to run the ball with their by-committee backfield.
“I think it has to. I think it takes pressure off the quarterback,” Hope said. “I think it does some things to open up your passing game.”
Purdue is averaging 158.8 yards a game on the ground, but none of its backs has more than Akeem Shavers’ 553 yards.
Marve, though, believes Illinois’ pass defense may be vulnerable.
“They bring a lot of blitzes, play very good man coverage, and we’re in a playoff situation right now, so we’ve got to be ready for it,” he said. “The great thing about the blitz is if you break it down, big plays are there, so that’s a huge risk by them.”
The Boilermakers will play against a defense missing its most talented player. Linebacker Jonathan Brown is out for a second straight week with a shoulder injury, Beckman said. Brown was the team’s leading tackler before he was hurt, but with just two games left Beckman says he isn’t sure he’ll have him back at all this season.
Purdue has for the most of the past decade had the edge on the Illini, winning seven of 10 and six of the last seven.
That includes last year’s 21-14 win at Purdue, a midseason game some Illinois players have pointed to as the point where things started to fall apart for Illinois in what turned into a six-game losing streak. It cost Ron Zook his job and brought Beckman to town.
Sizing up the Boilermakers this week, Beckman was impressed by their win over Iowa and how it, at least for the moment, turned their season around.
“That win last week was very, very big,” he said. “And the way they did it, to be on the road and to go down there and kick that field goal.”
It certainly improved the outlook at Purdue, and made Saturday what amounts to a playoff game.
“We had a lot of fun,” Hope said. “We had a blast.”