The Illini and Boilermakers square off in West Lafayette on Saturday
Saturday will feature the 93rd meeting between Illinois and Purdue, and the 66th time that the two Big Ten foes will compete for the Purdue Cannon. Illinois narrowly leads the all-time series 44–42–6, but Purdue has claimed 34 wins in the 65 games since the Purdue Cannon was introduced as the trophy for the rivalry. The road team has won each of the matchups dating back to 2012, with '11 the last time the Boilermakers claimed a victory in West Lafayette, the site of Saturday's contest.
Illinois stands at 2-6 this season and last in the Big Ten. After the Illini started 2-0 with wins over Ball State and Western Kentucky, head coach Lovie Smith's team is currently in the midst of a six-game losing skid. In that stretch, the Illini are averaging only 16 points per game. Illinois likely needs to win its final four games in order to make a bowl, which it has done only once in the last five seasons (Heart of Dallas Bowl, 2014).
Purdue is in a similar position currently on a three-game losing streak, though they sport one more win — and sit one spot higher in the Big Ten West — than Illinois. Four of the Boilermakers' five losses have been by one possession, however, and all three of their wins have come by at least 14 points. In his first year at Purdue, head coach Jeff Brohm has this program trending in the right direction, still with a real possibility to get back in bowl contention. Sure, Purdue would need to win three of its final four games, but with its slew of close losses, this team has the talent and confidence to eclipse the three-win mark for the first time since 2012 (also Purdue's last bowl appearance).
Illinois at Purdue
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 4 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Spread: Purdue -14
Three Things to Watch
1. Purdue’s passing attack vs. Illinois' pass defense
Purdue quarterback David Blough will have his work cut out for him against the Illini. Blough averages 114 passing yards per game this season, and only 78 yards per game in the four conference games in which he started at quarterback (did not start at Wisconsin). Illinois has allowed 191 passing yards per game this season, which puts them sixth in the Big Ten and in the top 30 nationally. If Blough can bounce back and turn around his struggles against conference foes, it could take some pressure off his running game and establish a balance on offense.
2. The little things: ball control and penalties
Not much more is overlooked and underappreciated than in-game discipline. Two elements stand out here: hanging onto the football and staying away from penalties. Both teams like to take the ball away on defense, ranking in the top four in the Big Ten and top 20 nationally in fumbles recovered, with Purdue (second in Big Ten, 10th nationally) at nine and Illinois one behind (fourth, 17th) at eight. With regard to penalties, both teams average more than six and seven committed per game. If this game comes down to the finish, that discipline could very well be the deciding factor come Saturday.
3. Finishing off drives in the red zone
These two offenses are closer to the bottom than the top in scoring offense, so when one side gets into the red zone it is imperative to get points. Purdue (third in the Big Ten) scores on more than 90 percent of its red zone trips, with Illinois (fifth) at 87 percent. Defensively, the two are nearly identical. Purdue is only allowing scores on 77.8 percent of opponents’ red zone opportunities (fourth in Big Ten), with the Illini (sixth) just percentage points behind at 78.4 percent. With both teams very strong in this area, a key stop in the red zone might swing the momentum in a big way.
The teams enter Saturday’s matchup with one conference win between the two, but record is far from the only indicator of their performances so far. A bowl is still in sight for both sides, but a loss would all but eliminate Illinois from contention while a loss would force Purdue to win its final three games to play in December.
With both teams riding losing streaks, starting out November with a win would be a tremendous step in the right direction as both teams try to gain momentum down the stretch. Pulling out a win would be a huge momentum boost for Illini head coach Lovie Smith as he looks to right the ship in Champaign, while Jeff Brohm and the Boilermakers have been oh-so-close over the last few weeks. One other point: don’t forget the recent success of road teams — the road team has won each of the last five games — in this rivalry. Can Purdue buck the trend and beat Illinois in West Lafayette for the first time since winning 21-14 in 2011?
Prediction: Purdue 31, Illinois 14
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Associate Editor of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.