After promising starts to the 2021 college football season, two Big Ten teams in need to bounceback wins will meet on Saturday when Illinois and Purdue face off at Ross-Ade Stadium.
The Illinois Fighting Illini (1-3, 1-1 Big Ten) scored an impressive 30-22 upset of Nebraska in Week 0 but are coming off three straight losses. What was especially galling for Illinois is the manner in which they lost to Maryland last Friday. The Terrapins won 20-17 as the Illini gave up 10 points in the last five minutes of the game. Maryland sealed the come-from-behind win at home with a 32-yard field goal as time expired.
Illinois head coach Bret Bielema sounded realistic about the rebuilding nature of where the program currently is in his first year at the helm.
"For people that aren’t in the building, you think you analyze losses more than you do wins, which is the exact opposite," Bielema said. "You actually treat them both equally. They’re both opportunities to make corrections. With a loss, I think you obviously have to measure the deciding moments when the game could have been won or could have been lost. But the same thing when you’re in any game decided by two scores or less, you have those same exact moments, just not everybody draws attention to them. I think our guys took the learning moments from this past Friday, just like they had in the two previous, just as much as they did against Nebraska. I know no one is happy to be 1-3, believe me, I get that."
Purdue (2-1) also is coming off a difficult loss, falling 27-13 on the road to Notre Dame. Compounding the loss for the Boilermakers was star wide receiver David Bell leaving the game early after taking a vicious hit. He is currently in concussion protocol, and may not be cleared to play on Saturday.
Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm is looking forward to the contest versus Illinois, recognizing the significance of playing a long-time conference rival.
"We're looking forward to starting off against an Illinois team that is much better this year," Brohm said. "They've played a lot of good football. They got one conference win against Nebraska already. They had Maryland 17-10 with about four minutes left in the game, unfortunately didn't win. So it's going to be a tough contest that we have got to play well and execute in order to win."
The all-time series is dead even at 45-45-6 with Purdue winning last season in Champaign, 31-24.
Illinois at Purdue
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 25 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Purdue -11
When Illinois Has the Ball
Illinois welcomed starting quarterback Brandon Peters back after he missed the last two games because of a shoulder injury suffered in the opener. He wasn't very sharp, completing just 10 of 26 passes for 185 yards with an interception. The hope is that he'll use this week of practice to better prepare for the Boilermakers.
The Illini ran for 183 yards against Maryland, led by Reggie Love III's 63 yards on 10 carries. Josh McCray was right behind Love with 60 yards and a touchdown on eight attempts.
Purdue currently lands in the middle (fifth-to-ninth) of the Big Ten rankings in all four major defensive categories. Overall, the Boilermakers have done a pretty good job against the run (104 ypg, 3.4 ypc allowed) and will need to maintain that effort against Illinois. Defensive end George Karlaftis is the anchor of the defense. He leads the team in tackles for a loss (2.5) and is one of five players with a sack. He needs to make some plays behind the line of scrimmage on Saturday for Purdue to have success slowing down Illinois' attack.
When Purdue Has the Ball
The Boilermakers are doing fine throwing the ball but struggling to run it with any effectiveness, as they are currently last in the Big Ten in that category. Purdue used two quarterbacks against Notre Dame with Jack Plummer (25-of-36, 186 yds., TD) and Aidan O'Connell (11-of-18, 104 yds., 2 INTs) both getting snaps. The top targets against the Irish were Jackson Anthrop (90 yds.) and the aforementioned Bell (64 yds.), with both recording seven receptions.
The Boilermakers really need to try and get their running game (109.7 ypg) going as they enter the meat of their Big Ten schedule. Illinois is giving up 160 yards per game on the ground, so this may be just the opportunity Purdue needs to put together a more balanced offensive approach.
Purdue is frustrated with its loss at Notre Dame, while Illinois is grappling with the rebuilding challenges facing new head coach Bret Bielema. Illinois will battle, but the Boilermakers will be able to slow down the Fighting Illini's running game enough to win at home.
Prediction: Purdue 30, Illinois 21
Podcast: Complete Week 4 Preview and Predictions + Picks Against the Spread
— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He also is podcasting for Buckeye Scoop. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.