Both Purdue and Illinois come into this game with a new lease on life. Purdue (2-3, 1-1 Big Ten) has won its last two games by a combined score of 72-41 after an 0-3 start to the season. The Boilermakers are lighting up the scoreboard, finding continuity on defense, and have reasserted themselves in a Big Ten West that’s still up for grabs.
Illinois (3-2, 1-1), on the other hand, is back in control of its season after returning from its bye week and taking down Rutgers last week to break a two-game losing streak.
Both teams are tied with Iowa for third in the division, and this week’s game will allow for some separation in the standings.
Purdue at Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 13 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Purdue -10.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Illinois quarterback A.J. Bush
The graduate senior returned to the Fighting Illini lineup last week after missing two and a half games with a hamstring injury. He was injured in the second half of the Week 2 win over Western Illinois and didn’t return. He participated in full pre-game warm ups against both South Florida and Penn State but was ultimately held out in game-time decisions. Illinois wound up losing both of those games.
After that, the Illini had their bye week, and it came at the perfect time as it allowed Bush to fully heal the hamstring. Once he took the field against the Scarlet Knights, he didn’t skip a beat, completing 10-of-18 passes for 89 yards and a touchdown. He also ran the ball 18 times for 116 yards and two additional scores. Bush’s efforts led the Fighting Illini to a 38-17 win in which 24 of those points were scored in the first half.
His athletic ability and experience allowed him to beat out four other players to win the job in training camp over the summer. His dual-threat skill set will be needed again in order to slow down the Boilermakers.
2. Purdue quarterback David Blough
After splitting reps with Elijah Sindelar to start the year, Blough took over the starting role on a full-time basis again against Missouri back on September 15. Since then, the Boilermakers have gone 2-1, they’ve scored 109 total points, and they’ve averaged over 300 passing yards per game. In those three games against Missouri, Boston College and Nebraska, Blough has completed 85-of-125 passes for 1,196 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s thrown only one interception all season, and he currently has a passer rating of 155.5.
Without Blough at the helm, Purdue might not be in its current position. He’s shown the efficiency, accuracy and consistency that were needed to bring head coach Jeff Brohm’s offense to life. If Illinois can’t get pressure on him, then it will be a long day in Champaign.
3. Defense could be the difference in this game
Both teams have improved on this side of the ball in recent weeks. After giving up 71 total points against Northwestern, Eastern Michigan and Missouri combined, the Boilermakers gave up 13 and 28 points to Boston College and Nebraska, respectively. They have 13 sacks, 27 tackles for a loss, 17 passes deflected, five forced fumbles and seven interceptions. If Illinois commits even the slightest mistake, it could cost the Fighting Illini the game.
The Illini have also made strides on defense. The 17 points they gave up against Rutgers last week marked the fourth time in which the Illini have held their opponents under the 30-point mark this season. They have seven sacks, eight quarterback hurries, 28 tackles for a loss, 23 passes deflected, five forced fumbles and 10 interceptions. Also working in Illinois’ favor is the fact that Purdue’s offensive line has given up 10 sacks in 2018, five of those against Boston College two weeks ago. Purdue must protect its quarterback, as just one defensive stop could be the deciding factor.
The Illini have gone over the 30-point threshold in each of their three wins (31, 34, 38) this year, the first two of which came on their home field of Memorial Stadium. They’ve also held their opponents under the 20-point mark in their last two victories, the first of which was also at home. That could be a problem for Purdue, which is playing only its second road game of 2018. Purdue has won four of the last six meetings with the Illini, but this year’s Illinois team is much improved from those previous six squads.
The Illini are more efficient on offense this year, they can hold their own on defense, and home field advantage will go a long way. The losses to South Florida and Penn State are not indicative of who this Illinois team truly is. It will be a tight, hard-hitting game, but Illinois improves their record at home.
Prediction: Illinois 27, Purdue 24
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.