CHAMPAIGN — After starting the season with modest hopes of reaching a bowl game this season, the Illinois Fighting Illini found itself two wins away from the Big Ten Conference’s championship game when the month of November started.
But now with back-to-back home losses to Michigan State and Purdue, the latter being a 31-24 setback on Saturday, Illinois now finds itself needing help to secure at trip to Indianapolis on Dec. 3.
“I’ve told these guys that this journey that we’re on, you’ll learn a lot in your moments of success but you’ll learn even more in the moments of failure, the moments of adversity,” said Illinois coach Bret Bielema, noting that Saturday’s loss came on Senior Day. “I know some of the seniors were very emotional just walking up the stairway there. The good thing is that they’ve done a lot of good things, the tough news is that we’re not done enough in the last two weeks.
“It’s a race that’s nowhere close to being done. But, I think the thing we need to worry about now is getting Illinois football good at Illinois football. We’re in no position which was our directive this week to focus on playing Purdue, a divisional opponent, a rematch game. This was our sixth rematch game and it’s our first failure in a rematch. It’s very hard to win with the things we were doing today.”
What exactly did the Illini (7-3 overall, 4-3 in the Big Ten West Division) do on Saturday that hurt their chances for victory?
Illinois was held to just 102 rushing yards with senior running back Chase Brown gaining just 98 on 23 carries. It was his first time this season that he was held under 100 yards.
“It can’t be all on one player,” said Bielema, noting that sophomore Josh McCray was unavailable again on Saturday with an ankle injury. “We have to continue to develop, recruit and build our depth.”
Without that success on the ground, the Illini had six possession with three plays of less, including five out of seven in the first half.
“We scored on the opening series and then we had two 3-and-outs and we couldn’t get anything going,” Bielema said. “First-down success, we have a lot better functionality when we have success on early downs. One of our keys this week was early-down success which leads to third-down efficiency. We weren’t able to capitalize on that, especially with those dead plays.”
And then defensively, Illinois, which had only allowed two touchdowns in its first five home games this season, saw Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell throw for 237 yards and three scores — two of them coming in the second half to tight end Payne Durham.
Additionally, the Boilermakers ran for 142 yards with Devin Mockobee getting 106 and a touchdown.
So, what’s different with the Fighting Illini defense?
“Two-fold, obviously teams make adjustments to us. There have been some things that people have schemed and created plays for their players,” Bieleman said. “The other thing, through the first seven games, we stayed pretty healthy. When we did have guys go down, it was one position and one guy. But it was multiple positions today, in particular, that got affected by depth.
“That’s what Big Ten football races are about. The teams that stay healthy and have a little bit of depth are able to come through in the end. Not an excuse, just a reality. But that’s why when we get a chance to keep developing our roster, build out our roster and recruit, the better we’ll be.”
And another critical factor for Illinois were the penalties.
The Fighting Illini were flagged 12 times for 121 yards, including five defensive pass interference calls and a pair of personal fouls — both of which came on go-ahead touchdown drive for the Boilermakers that gave them the lead for good at 28-21.
“That drive that manifested in points, I think there were two unsportsmanlike penalties that resulted in 15-yard penalties each and I think there were two DPIs (defensive pass interferences) on that series,” Bielema said. “You’re just not going to survive major college football in Big Ten play with those kind of numbers working against you.”
And then there was the Devon Witherspoon interception late in the second quarter that was overturned by a defensive pass interference. On the very next play, O’Connell connected with Charlie Jones for a 32-yard touchdown pass with 1 minute, 40 seconds left in the second quarter that allowed the Boilermakers to tie the game at 14-14 heading into the lockerroom at halftime.
“It was an interception,” said Illinois junior linebacker Tarique Barnes.
Bielema added, “we had been called for four defensive pass interferences all season and we got called for five today. The one on Devon on our sideline, I was trying to get an explanation on it, but didn’t get it. We will have to look at it on film and see what we can do differently.”
While Saturday’s loss was the second in a row for Illinois, it also snapped a two-game losing streak for Purdue, which is not part of a four-way tie for first place in the West Division with Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota.
The Boilermakers (6-4 overall, 4-3 in the Big Ten West Division) close the year with games against Big Ten cellar dwellers Northwestern (1-9) and Indiana (3-7).
“We’re not blind to those things,” said O’Connell. “We know we’re bowl eligible, we know we’re still in the hunt (in the division).”
Both Illinois and Purdue will look to maintain its first-place standing in the Big Ten West Division this Saturday.
The Illini travel to Ann Arbor, Mich., for an 11 am contest with the third-rated Michigan Wolverines (10-0), while the Boilermakers will host the Northwestern Wildcats in a noon (Eastern) contest at Ross-Ade Stadium.