WEST LAFAYETTE — After a bye week, Purdue looks to keep its winning streak rolling and its bowl hopes alive when the team travels to Illinois (3:30 p.m., FS1).
The Boilermakers (2-3, 1-1 Big Ten) have begun to climb out of their early 0-3 hole. A victory Saturday would be the third straight and mark the first time all season the Boilermakers are .500. Meanwhile, the Fighting Illini (3-2, 1-1) are fresh off of their first Big Ten win in 700 days and looking to inch closer to a bowl game of their own.
Here are three keys to victory for the Boilermakers:
1. Stop a different kind of running game
At this point, it’s cliché. “Stop the run” is a key for every team, no matter the matchup or the opponent. But this week at Illinois, Purdue needs to follow this old-school principle in a bit of a different way against a new-school offense.
The Fighting Illini hired former Arizona co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Rod Smith, the same coordinator the Boilermakers played against in the Foster Farms Bowl. The longtime Rich Rodriguez assistant has revitalized the running game.
The Fighting Illini rank third in the Big Ten and 13th nationally in rushing offense. However, they’re doing it in a different way than most. Rather than overpowering opponents with a classic two tight end, two running back formation like most Big Ten teams, Smith chooses to spread defenses out and attack them with read-option plays and misdirection.
Running back Reggie Corbin is one of the Big Ten’s top five rushers, with 464 yards, a robust 7.9 yards per carry and five touchdowns. But, really, the more unique concern is quarterback A.J. Bush Jr. The Fighting Illini feature the 6-foot-4, 225-pound quarterback prominently in the running game with draw plays and designed runs, like the read option.
Purdue coach Jeff Brohm has been critical of the way his team has defended spread teams and the read-option, calling Purdue’s defense against the concept “awful” against Nebraska. However, if the Boilermakers can effectively limit Bush on the ground, he’s completing just 58.3 percent of his passes. Against Rutgers last week, he threw for only 89 yards.
Keeping Illinois one-dimensional will keep Purdue in the win column.
2. Protect the football
Illinois coach Lovie Smith’s NFL fingerprints are all over the Fighting Illini defense. The coach deploys his Tamp 2 defense, mixing in a bit of man coverage, just as he did as the head coach of the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The other staple of Smith’s defenses is they are ball hawks. This year, the Fighting Illini lead the Big Ten in turnover margin at plus-8. They have forced 10 interceptions and two fumbles. Freshman corner Jartavius Martin and senior linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips share the Big Ten lead with three interceptions each.
The Boilermakers have suffered through their turnover issues. In the first half of the first game alone, Elijah Sindelar threw three interceptions. However, of late, the Boilermakers have done a much better job of protecting the football. Quarterback David Blough has thrown just a single interception against seven touchdowns in the past three games. Continuing that trend will be critical if Purdue is going to extend its winning streak.
3. Don’t overlook the Illini
Let’s be honest, Illinois is not even close to the toughest game on Purdue’s schedule. The Fighting Illini have been a Big Ten basemen dweller for years, including last year when they went 0-9 in conference play. Add in the fact Purdue hosts Ohio State under the lights at Ross-Ade Stadium next week on ABC, and it could be easy to overlook the Fighting Illini.
Purdue proved in Week 2 with a 20-19 loss to Eastern Michigan, a mid-level Mid-America Conference team, it can lose against anyone if it doesn’t come ready to play. It will be paramount the Boilermakers approach this game as if it’s Ohio State if the real Ohio State game is going to mean anything. Otherwise, any bowl chances are gone and next week’s game against Ohio State means nothing more than a big electricity bill.