SOC - Purdue
This might be a long one. I have a lot of thoughts. I have gone back and forth and back and forth with this game all week. This is the main reason I don't make a prediction until the night before. I would have changed it 13 times this week. I think I know where I'm leaning right now, but if this post is long enough, I might change my mind by the time we reach the end.
I think I'll go through this one on my hands.
On one hand, this Purdue defense is shaky. They've played exactly one solid game so far (Boston College), and they mostly shut down Boston College by grabbing four interceptions. We know how fickle interceptions can be, now don't we.
If we go by the NERDstats, their defense isn't great. That stat I talked about last week - percentage of opponent's first downs coming on first or second down? Meaning, if the opponent is picking up the majority of their first downs on first or second down, meaning they're just marching down the field not even being forced into third down situations? Purdue's defense is 113th nationally in that statistic. In that "you can march down the field on them" statistic.
On the other hand, Illinois is 116th in that statistic. And as we've seen, you can march down the field on us fairly regularly as well. That drive before halftime last week where Rutgers completed I believe 183 underneath passes in a row? It feels like we might see a lot of that tomorrow. Our defense is set up to give up yards but not points. You saw how it is supposed to work against South Florida. The whole plan is "keep everything in front of you and while you're doing that, force turnovers". If we don't get those turnovers, with an offense like Purdue, look out.
I mean, if we just go by standard statistics, Purdue is 12th nationally in passing yards and Illinois is 12th... from last in passing yards allowed (118th nationally). Just on that alone, this one is a Purdue blowout, right? If David Blough can throw for 572 yards against Missouri (yes, 572 yards), will he throw for 700 tomorrow?
On one hand, it's homecoming. And we finally broke the Big Ten losing streak. And we're coming home to our biggest crowd of the year on a sunny fall Saturday. There's a reason Vegas always favors the home team. This is a very motivated locker room - players who know they should have beaten South Florida and were convinced they could take out Penn State. That counts for something, right?
Of course, on the other hand, Purdue might be even more motivated. Remember the Stanley Green hit last year that knocked Blough out for the year? The one that was originally called targeting, was later reversed to say that it's not targeting, and then reversed again by an apology from the Big Ten office? Yeah, Blough might be a tiny bit motivated tomorrow.
(I should note, it wasn't exactly the hit that sent Blough out for the season. Green took a free shot at a QB, Blough's foot got caught in a weird spot as other Illini defenders latched on, and he dislocated his ankle. I talked to an Illini friend who thought that Blough was knocked out with a concussion - it wasn't' a concussion, it was the foot.)
Anyway, yes, Purdue will be motivated. It kind of feels like a hockey game where one bench is just waiting for The One Guy to make an appearance on the ice. If Green is out there for the opening kickoff, expect three Purdue players to welcome him to the field. And if Green is in at safety, Blough is going to beg Jeff Brohm to let him throw one over his head to Rondale Moore.
Who? Oh, only one of the five best freshmen in college football, somehow at Purdue. Though five games, he has 41 catches for Purdue.
You didn't react like you should have. I'll try again. In five games, he has 41 receptions. Sam Mays leads the Illini with 13 receptions this year. Last year Ricky Smalling led with 31 receptions on the season. Rondale Moore has 41 receptions in five games. He's on pace for 100 catches. As a true freshman.
Of course, on the other hand, the strength of our entire team right now is the cornerbacks. Did you see the Pro Football Focus grades earlier this week? They graded all of the Big Ten cornerbacks on their performances last week and Illini cornerbacks ranked 3rd (Nate Hobbs), 4th (Quan Martin), and 5th (Cam Watkins). One corner from Michigan, one corner from Iowa, three corners from Illinois. If we want to shut down Rondale Moore, Nate Hobbs is just the guy to do it, right?
So what if we do that? What if we force three turnovers, limit Moore's touches, and do the South Florida thing where we give up a bunch of yards but not many points? Do we have the offense to then match?
Well, I believe we do. We've already surpassed last year's rushing total. And we haven't exactly seen the AJ Bush I was raving about at camp. I think he can throw it a little better than he's shown so far. I'll be honest, there's part of me that hopes Purdue has been practicing and practicing and practicing for the running game they've seen on tape... and we come out and throw it on nine of the first 10 snaps and roll right down the field against their eight-in-the-box.
Of course, on the other hand, can we win a shootout? The offense is improved, but can it win a 45-42 game? I don't think it's there yet. Purdue's defense can be had, but in every eay their defense is susceptible, ours is more susceptible. And Purdue's offense is much better than ours.
Which brings me to the one stat that I think decides tomorrow's game. The Purdue offense starts eight seniors. The Illini defense starts one senior. As you may know, I only see experience when I look at college football (as in, the most experienced team almost always wins), and Brohm started his rebuild with juniors while Lovie started his with freshmen. Which means Brohm rolls into tomorrow with the most experienced (snaps-wise) offense in the Big Ten and Lovie rolls in with the least-experienced defense.
Unfortunately, that makes the end of this post fairly easy. I guess this wasn't going to be a long one after all. I believe that next year we'll be favored by six at Purdue and in 2020 we'll be favored by 13 at home against Purdue, but this year, they're too experienced (and Blough is too motivated) for the Illini to win.
Purdue 40, Illinois 23