Purdue travels to Champaign to meet Illinois this weekend, on a mission to upend the Fighting Illini's chances of retaining the annual "Cannon" trophy in head coach Lovie Smith's debut rivalry game against the Boilermakers.
While the Illini have stumbled out of the gates to a 1-3 start, it has been against arguably the nation's most difficult slate based solely on their opponents’ win-loss percentages at this point. Conversely, the Boilermakers are coming off of an embarrassing old-school shellacking courtesy of the Maryland Terrapins.
This is the 92nd meeting between these longtime Big Ten foes, with Illinois holding a slight lead in the all-time series, 44-41-6.
Purdue at Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 8 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Spread: Illinois -10.5
Three Things to Watch
1. QB Battle
Purdue's David Blough has thrown for 1,078 yards in four games. His nearly 270 yards per game puts him second in the Big Ten. Unfortunately, the sophomore has tossed more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (six) to this point. On the other side of the field, Illinois’ Wes Lunt has six touchdown passes and just one pick in four games, but he’s averaging fewer than 200 yards per game through the air. Both defenses have fared pretty well against the pass in the early going, so it will be interesting to see which quarterback is able to find a rhythm early and make plays from the pocket.
2. Illini Defensive Talent
Illinois senior defensive end Dawuane Smoot was represented on preseason watch lists for the prestigious Bednarik, Hendricks and Lombardi awards. He also received preseason All-American and All-Big Ten recognition from numerous media outlets. Smoot is a big reason why the Illini enter this game tied for 20th in the FBS and are third in the Big Ten in sacks per game (3.3). The also lead the conference and are fifth in the nation in tackles for a loss per game (9.3). Illinois’ defense will need to continue to make these types of impact plays against a Purdue offense that is averaging 421.8 yards per game (7th in Big Ten).
3. Controlling the Clock
Purdue has had possession of the ball for a little more than half of its games (31:23 on average) thus far, while Illinois has had to defend a bit more (28:41) than the Boilermakers to this point. Both teams would rather have their offenses on the field, so ball security and establishing a consistent running game will be critical. Purdue’s running game has been more productive than Illinois’ through four games, but neither offense is known for churning out the yards. The Illini are averaging 5.3 yards per carry compared to the Boilermakers’ 4.0, which is something to watch considering Purdue is giving up the same amount on the season. Whichever team is able to establish a tempo to its liking and hold onto the ball longer will likely wear the other down.
Make no mistake, this is no Battle of the Titans. But when it comes to the Big Ten, unless you're the anointed ones like Michigan and Ohio State, or possibly Wisconsin in 2016, every single game is a big game and counts in a big way. For this matchup, Illinois appears to be the better team and is playing at home. The Illini have shown improvement in head coach Lovie Smith’s first season and could be on the verge of breaking out on offense. Whether that happens Saturday or not remains to be seen, but the defense should have the edge against Purdue’s offense, meaning it’s probably going to be another long afternoon for Darrell Hazell and his Purdue charges.
Prediction: Illinois 35, Purdue 7
— Written by Robert A. Boleyn, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a native Iowan currently calling Southern California home. Boleyn attended both the University of Iowa and UCLA, is a former Contributing Writer for the Daily Iowan and a die-hard Hawkeye and Big Ten alum. Follow him on Twitter @BoleynRobert.