Purdue has beaten Illinois five straight times, so there is no way the Illini wish to take them lightly. They have a dangerous option attack and a solid defense led by an All-American. Injuries aside, the Boilermakers pose a major threat to the Illini's quest for a winning season and bowl bid.
"If you go back and look, this is a team that we have not had a lot of success with since we've been here," Illinois head coach Ron Zook reminds. "I think people are seeing just how good the Big Ten is."
"It is going to be a game that our guys are going to have to continue to do the same things that we have done. And that's prepare to play with the same intensity and the same emotion for 60 minutes. It'll be a game that's going to take everyone. We are looking forward to another great challenge."
Purdue has lost its starting quarterback, wide receiver and running back to season-ending injuries. Redshirt freshman Rob Henry, third team to begin the season, is listed as the starting quarterback, and yet he may not be effective after lacerating the index finger of his throwing hand last Saturday. At the least, he will share time with true freshman Sean Robinson.
Despite all this turmoil, much focus for the Illini this week is on stopping the Boilermaker offense. Henry is a better runner than passer, so PU switched in midseason from a passing attack to an option attack. Henry and Robinson are both outstanding runners and cause the Illini a great deal of concern according to Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning.
"Last week we were able to focus on pass, and we weren't as concerned about the quarterback run game. Put that one to bed. Purdue is a lot different team by almost 180 degrees. We have to defend the whole field, a lot more formations and a lot more plays. And with the quarterback run game, you don't have enough numbers on defense. It's definitely gonna be a stiff challenge for us this week."
Defending an option attack requires a different approach to coaching, and Koenning has been creative this week.
"In option football, you have to read and react and be assignment perfect. We went without a football (Monday). Guys have to take the responsibility, and our guys looked like they were lost like leaves in the wind. We've got to focus better on our responsibilities."
How does going without a football help?
"If you have a football, everybody's got an excuse, 'I went to the ball.' But if you practice option football without a ball, the quarterback player has the quarterback, the dive player has that, the alley has that...That way, everybody's got their responsibility."
Will you attack the youthful Purdue quarterbacks to get them out of their comfort zone?
"What they do is, they protect him somewhat. If you're a defensive lineman and you rush up field against an option team, then you're gonna get creased pretty badly. Because of what they do in their option game, it slows down your pass rush.
"We've got to completely change. It's probably reminiscent of NASCAR guys going from Martinsville last week to Talladega this coming week. They've got to switch. We can't just go get a new car, so our guys have just got to learn something different. Their offense is a nightmare. It's one of those laying-awake-until-4:00-in-the-morning type stuff."
Ohio State ripped Purdue last week, amassing a big halftime lead. Doesn't that bode well for the Illini?
"Ohio State was able to get ahead of them and get them out of their game. Ohio State's front was able to get pressure, but they were also able to cover the receivers in a one-on-one situation. So they could load the box against them. I don't know if we're at that point. We've just got to do the best we can and get the best plan for our guys. See what happens."
Zook knows both Purdue quarterbacks well. Henry attended several Illini summer camps and considered walking on, and Rochester's Robinson was offered a scholarship by the Illini.
"I knew Rob when he was very young in high school. He had a very, very close friend who brought him to our quarterback camp several times, so I knew Rob. He is actually from Mississippi, but he played his senior year of high school in Ocala (Florida) at a private Catholic school there. He has done a great job."
"Of course the guy from right here, right across the street, Sean, is a guy that is no question a great athlete. I had him in my office on more than one occasion, but he chose Purdue. Everybody has to do what they feel is best for them."
Robinson is similar to Henry according to Zook.
"Yeah, athletic. They have only been in this offense the last three games. Quarterback run, quarterback trap, quarterback option, quarterback this, quarterback bootleg. Both those guys are athletic guys that can run and make things happen."
Normally, it takes months if not years to install a new offense. Purdue had only a bye week to get ready for Northwestern, and yet they pulled off the upset in Evanston.
"They have done a heck of a job," Zook concludes. "They go in to Northwestern, and that was really the first game they kind of got in this. This is a pretty good coaching staff. These guys are pretty good ball coaches, and they've kind of put a package together that makes it pretty tough to get ready for."
Safety Tavon Wilson knows the Illini defense is in for a major challenge.
"They're tough. They've got a very difficult zone option offense that's gonna be tough to defend. There's a lot of misdirection, a lot of moving parts with people going different places. You've got to get in the film room and learn all the tips you can use in the game."
Linebacker Martez Wilson prefers the physicality of a run game, but he knows each defender must be assignment sound first and foremost.
"It's a more physical game when it's a run game. With Purdue's offense, we've got to stay disciplined, take care of our responsibility. I've got to take care of my job, and my teammates have to take care of their jobs."
Purdue is no slouch on defense either. Their front seven is especially strong and is led by Ryan Kerrigan. Illini coaches and players praise the defensive end.
"He is as good as any of them, there's no question," Zook admits. "He is a wrecking ball. He is a great player, unbelievable, tough. He plays hard, he's tough, he's a great pass rusher. He is one of the better ones in the Big Ten, no question.
"He's usually on the strong side, but in the passing situation they're going to try to find a weak link to get him in a one-on-one situation, depending on the protections and so forth, and let him create havoc. He's a good football player, there's no question. He's as good as anybody in the Big Ten."
Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will no doubt be on the lookout for a runaway freight coming at him Saturday. Still, he is confident his teammates will protect him.
"They obviously have a good d-line, and actually their front seven. Kerrigan is probably the best defensive lineman in the country in my mind. There definitely isn't anyone that plays harder than him. You've got to find a way to slow him down.
"I think our linemen are looking forward to the task at hand. We know things we can do to kind of get him slowed down. Different ways to run at him, run away from him, throw different things at him."
Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino faces another quality defense this week.
"They've got a great defensive lineman. He can really pass rush and come off the edge. And their safety #35 (Logan Link) plays on the boundary and is a good football player, a real good tackler. They play hard and are a good defense. We've got to execute and do a good job against them."
More than likely, Purdue will find it easier to put the shellacking at Ohio State behind them quicker than if they had played a close game. Their bowl future is as much at stake as Illinois, so they will be ready to play an inspired game.
The Illini have a great deal of confidence and momentum right now, but they must continue to play with complete focus every week. They cannot afford a letdown or they will lose a game they are capable of winning. The feeling is the Illini will play well and pull out a win. But they must make it happen.
Scheelhaase speaks for the whole team when putting the importance of the game in proper focus.
"You definitely want to get a win, especially at this time in the season. No matter what we have to do, no matter how it goes, getting another notch in that win column is so big for us right now.
"We have a chance to build some momentum at this time. Getting that win last week was huge for us in moving forward to this game. It's kind of the same feel, it's another team coming to our house. We feel confident going in. It's been awhile since we've been two games over .500, so it would be huge for us."