Postscript, Purdue

Oct 28, 2019

I had a conversation Saturday with a friend who dislikes the term "signature win."

His position was that it's used too loosely, too frequently for what it's supposed to symbolize.

I'd never thought about the term, but I see his point. A big win over an opponent in an otherwise pedestrian season isn't a signature win. It's a huge win, sure. It can be a statement win.

Signature wins carry more importance. Illinois' win over No. 1 Ohio State in 2007 was a signature win of a Rose Bowl season. The season was great, and the win was their signature on a terrific year.

Last Saturday's win over Wisconsin wasn't a signature win, because 2-4 teams can't have signature wins. At the micro level it was a fantastic, season-saving win; on a macro level, it's a win that will be talked about for decades.

It just wasn't a signature win. Yet.

Perhaps it will be, though, if Lovie is able to fully turn this thing around, to do what just a few weeks ago seemed impossible. It's a win that might be synonymous with his tenure in Champaign, when Illinois stated their intent to once again be part of the college football conversation.

This past Saturday was another step in that direction. Unlike the Wisconsin win, this one was a different kind of upset, defying everything we know about teams coming off emotional wins and everything we know, or have known, about Illinois football in recent years. The team that has rarely pulled off the upset, by Vegas' standards, did it for the second time in eight days, and in convincing fashion.

A 9.5-point spread favoring the team that was without a handful of its best players told the story of how little faith the oddsmakers have in road teams, and teams coming off the high of a huge upset, and the Illini as a football team in 2019. This team that jumped up and bit the No. 6 team in the country was expected to lose by more than a touchdown to a banged-up, 2-5 Purdue club.

And they answered with their most convincing win this year, non-Akron division. There are asterisks, but the oddsmakers knew the asterisks and said they expected Illinois to get knocked down again anyway.

For as impressive as it was, Saturday, too, was not a signature win. There won't be one in 2019, given the stakes.

It was, though, a statement win. And they've got the chance to make a few more statements before the year is over.

-Purdue had the bad fortune of bringing a (shot)gun to a dirty, gritty knife fight.

Jeff Brohm's offense has long been a pass-first offense, dating back to his days at Western Kentucky. It's the kind of offense where David Blough, or Elijah Sindelar, or Jack Plummer can step in and throw for 300 yards without much resistance. He's a great offensive mind, but that offense begins and ends with the passing game.

Which makes Saturday's conditions a nightmare for an offense like Purdue's. It didn't help that Purdue's receivers seemed to have a special case of the drops, even worse than one would expect with wet footballs. At a certain point the drops became impossibly bad, as though the law of averages would expect Purdue receivers to catch every football thrown in their vicinity for the next four weeks to make up for all their drops Saturday.

That isn't to diminish Illinois' complete domination in the game. Both teams had to play in the conditions, and one of the great X-factors in football is the unpredictability of weather in open-air stadia. Illinois lined up, played their game -- it's not as though teams, even bad rushing teams like Minnesota, haven't been able to have success against the Illini this year -- and rolled.

What also can't be ignored, though, is the fact that the game could have looked much different on a clear day.

-The point of noting that is less to somehow take away from the fact that Illinois is 4-4 or has won two straight or any of the many other supremely positive trends from the past few weeks, but more to say: although it appears that things are moving in the right direction, we just can't yet be sure.

Knocking off the No. 6 team in the country is a feat, but as South Carolina showed against Georgia and Wyoming showed against Missouri and on and on, anything can happen on any given day in college football. Much less at home, on Homecoming, with the No. 6 team possibly looking ahead to a primetime matchup with Ohio State.

In that sense, beating Purdue like a drum on their home turf possibly carries even more legitimacy. That the game was a wet, sloppy mess -- this wasn't two teams lining up and trying to impose their will on the other -- still leaves open a window for doubt to creep in.

Crushing a bad Rutgers team at home next weekend won't do a ton to answer those questions, but it can help. Three wins in a row against three Big Ten opponents, including one of the best teams in the country, isn't nothing. I'm excited to see them come out and take care of business.

-Robert touched on this briefly in his Senior Day piece, but one of the most promising things about this two-week surge is that the defensive units seem to have worked themselves out.

To wit:

Safety in early August: Sydney Brown and Tony Adams as starters, with plenty of Kerby Joseph sprinkled in while Brown got healthy, and Delano Ware bouncing around to give the team bodies at the position

Safety in late October: Brown and Stanley Green Jr. exclusively

Cornerback in early August: Nate Hobbs and Quan Martin with Marquez Beason (get well soon) and Nick Walker on the second string

Cornerback in late October: Hobbs, Adams and Devon Witherspoon exclusively

Linebacker in early August: Jake Hansen-Dele Harding-Milo Eifler, don't overthink it

Linebacker in late October: Jake Hansen-Dele Harding-Milo Eifler, don't overthink it

Defensive line in early August: Man, so many guys, and at least four need to stand out

Defensive line in late October: Jamal Milan, Tymir Oliver, Kenyon Jackson, Shogbonyo, Gay and Carney all stood out at times Saturday

It took half a season to get the right guys in the right spots, but they seem to have found the recipe.

-I keep hammering this point, but Brandon Peters' running is, I think, the key to this offense.

It's not the runs themselves -- although he's been able to pick up some nice chunks the past two weeks -- but rather, it's the threat of him pulling it and running, which sows doubt in a defensive end's mind on the read-option, or maybe makes a defensive back freeze for a half-second as a receiver darts past him, that makes a difference.

If the defense isn't sure whether this is one of the handful of times that Peters is going to keep it in a given game, they're suddenly forced to think instead of just reacting. He's likely not going to break a big one any time soon, but Peters' runs have been some of my favorite plays in recent weeks.

-I like winning trophies. They should win trophies more often.

-I also liked seeing the players enjoy winning the trophy, and of course seeing them enjoy the mob on the field after beating Wisconsin.

As a jaded Illini fan, I'm constantly worried about whether a recruit's commitment will stick or whether a player is going to tire of the constant losing and transfer. And I know that having fun with your friends on the field after winning a cannon trophy may not keep you from transferring in search of more or better playing time elsewhere, but I don't think creating those positive memories can hurt, either.

-Similar to the thing about the defense finding its best rotation, the running back duo of Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown has really been terrific these past few weeks. It's disappointing to think how much of this Dre Brown we've missed out on because of injury these past few years.

-I always like to note the early lines on the next game, so it's worth recognizing the Illini are three touchdown favorites next weekend.

Nobody needs to tell Illinois about how meaningless lines can be. But this feels like a prime spot to be above .500 this late in a season for the first time since 2015.

Let's get it. Hail to the Orange.


Groundhogday on October 28 @ 07:41 PM CDT

Earlier this season, we couldn't come close to stopping the run. While a lot of folks have stepped up, I'd say the keys are:

  • Milan has become a beast on the DL, making everyone else better up front.
  • Green is by far our best run stuffing safety. And he has perhaps finally learned to stop the stupid penalties.
  • Abrams is a big upgrade in run support at the CB position.

Yes, we lost a bit on pass defense with some of these moves, but pass defense fell apart anyway when this D couldn't get off the field.

Dr. Chim Richalds on October 29 @ 04:22 PM CDT

Really liked the point about how jaded-ness of fans, players, and recruits creates a downward spiral. With a win Saturday, in addition to being above .500 in November for the first time since 2015, this team would have the first 3-game Illini conference winning streak since 2007. Three weeks of excitement and encouraging signs could have a nice extended positive impact on fan engagement, team morale, and recruiting, which has been rare the past decade.

Here's hoping this team keeps the momentum rolling - couldn't have been a more well-deserved celebration in the mud after the game.

Illinimac68 on October 30 @ 01:59 PM CDT

Like the groundhogs of Old Ivy, down in the muddy, muddy deep.

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