To the surprise of many, Illinois opened the season with six straight victories, claiming three consecutive three-point decisions during one span. Unfortunately for the Illini, they were held in check offensively last weekend in a 17-7 home loss to Ohio State.
"We have got to regroup, and we're still in a position where we control our own destiny," said head coach Ron Zook after the loss. "I think our guys have to understand that and they do. They're hurt right now, but we're 6-1 and two of the better teams in the Big Ten still have to come here. We have to go on the road the next two weeks and get ready to go."
Third-year head coach Danny Hope has his Boilermakers off to a 3-3 start, as the team has rotated wins and losses consistently since besting Middle Tennessee in the season opener. Last weekend, Purdue put forth a solid effort on the road against Penn State, but fell by a 23-18 final.
Illinois owns a 41-37-6 series advantage over Purdue, but the Boilermakers have won the last four meetings, the most recent of which took place in 2006.
Nathan Scheelhaase has been solid under center for Illinois this season, but he did struggle last weekend against Ohio State. The signal caller managed only 169 passing yards on 20 completions and threw a pair of costly interceptions. A.J. Jenkins led the Illinois receivers with eight catches for 80 yards, while Scheelhaase paced the ground attack with 49 rushing yards. Just 285 total yards were gained by the UI offense.
Overall this season, the Illini are posting 30.7 ppg and 424.4 total ypg, thanks in large part to the play of Scheelhaase. The quarterback has thrown 11 TD passes while connecting on 64.9 percent of his attempts, and he leads the ground attack with 396 yards and four scores. Jenkins has emerged as an absolute star, as he has 54 grabs for 895 yards and seven TDs.
Ohio State attempted a mere four passes against Illinois last week, and the lone completion was a 17-yard touchdown. The Illini surrendered 211 rushing yards on 51 attempts, but the fact that the defense yielded just 228 yards total has to be considered a strong performance.
"They just give us the weekend and after that we have to concentrate on the next game," said defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who doesn't think the loss will linger. "Only 24 hours, that is it."
Foes are posting 17.7 ppg against Illinois, which is permitting only 286.9 total ypg. So while Scheelhaase and the offense certainly deserve a lot of credit for the 6-1 start, the defense has been the key to the Illini's success. The club has generated 12 takeaways and posted a stellar total of 26 sacks. Mercilus is certainly one of the truly elite defenders in all of college football, as he has 10 sacks already to go along with five forced fumbles.
Mercilus and company will attempt to stifle a solid Purdue offense that averages 30.2 ppg and 400.8 total ypg. The Boilermakers have scored 22 offensive touchdowns thus far, 13 of which have come on the ground. They average 206.5 ypg at a clip of 5.0 ypc, and only seven turnovers have been committed thus far. Caleb TerBush has taken the majority of snaps for coach Hope's team and has completed 61.3 percent of his passes for 949 yards, six TDs and four INTs. Ralph Bolden paces the ground attack with 370 yards, and several receivers are capable of making valuable contributions.
Against Penn State last week, the Boilermakers only managed 18 points. TerBush threw a touchdown pass to O.J. Ross, and Akeem Shavers reached the end zone on a one-yard run. Unfortunately, TerBush threw a pair of INTs in the contest, and Robert Mavre was picked off as well. Bolden rushed for 97 yards, but the overall play of the offense was disappointing.
Defensively, the Boilermakers are yielding 349.3 ypg and 21.0 ppg. Stopping the run has been a strength for Purdue, which is holding foes to 3.7 yards per attempt. There is room for improvement in the red zone, as opponents have scored touchdowns on 10 of their 16 trips inside the 20-yard line. Joe Holland leads the Boilermakers with 43 total tackles, including three TFL.
Purdue yielded 367 yards to Penn State last week, and while the Boilermakers allowed a mere 3.8 yards per rushing attempt, the Nittany Lions were able to score a pair of rushing TDs. Just one takeaway was notched by the defense.
"Basically, their defense made more plays than our defense," said Purdue DT Kawann Short. "They're one of the top defenses in the nation, so we expected that. We were just trying to match what they did."