It is easy to remember the date November 3, 1962. It was the day the Illini football team, losers of 15 games in a row over three seasons, played at Purdue in a game everyone expected the Boilermakers to win handily.
This writer was invited to play football in Carle Park in Urbana on a colorful fall day where piles of leaves broke one's fall from a hard tackle. Others laughed when they saw a portable radio, ridiculing the hope and love that springs eternal for the Illini. Most had no interest in listening to another loss, figuring a good game of football with friends in the park was preferable. Blowout losses of 45-0 at Northwestern and 51-15 at home against Ohio State had helped mold this negative perspective.
But on this special day, the Illini rose up and defeated the pesky Boilermakers, 14-10. It marked a turning point that saw the Illini also win its season-ending game with Michigan State to set the stage for a Rose Bowl excursion the following season. Patience and perseverence paid off for those loyal enough to keep the faith.
Certainly, the young Illini team had among its members some outstanding sophomores in their first seasons (freshmen were ineligible), especially Dick Butkus and some excellent two-way linemen. These players suffered through many hard knocks while learning on the job but continued to fight throughout the season and were ultimately rewarded for their efforts. When some great freshmen were added to the team the following season, everything fell into place.
The situation in 1962 is somewhat parallel to this season. No, we have no Dick Butkus on the team. But we do have a lot of youngsters who remember all their bumps and bruises through a grueling Big 10 schedule and are still fighting to win some games. Purdue is a big favorite this time around, but they were favored in 1962 as well.
The real question now is whether the present Illini team has the horses to beat anyone left on the schedule, and most are discounting the possibility. Purdue was rated as one of the top teams in the country to begin the season, and their favorable schedule caused Boilermaker fans and players alike to dream of National Championships and BCS bowl games. Having such lofty goals shattered by a string of six losses makes them less motivated to win because they are no longer bowl eligible. Is an upset possible?
Probably not. The Boilers have dedicated themselves to winning their last three games, and their impressive victory over Michigan State last weekend gives them a leg up on their goal. However, if there was ever a game where Purdue might lack motivation, it is a home game with the Illini. They feel better after beating the Spartans, but they still have nothing to play for but pride. And they play arch rival Indiana the following week. It is human nature to relax when heavily favored, so we can hope Purdue won't see us as a threat.
Offensively, Purdue is somewhat of an enigma right now. Known for their wide open passing attack under Joe Tiller, Purdue has limited their passing attack and added more running plays, including some option. Perhaps there are now so many spread variations being used in the Big 10 that Purdue is trying something different. But it might also be due to the problem they are having in identifying their next super quarterback such as has led them to bowl games in their previous eight seasons.
Being spoiled by the exploits of superstars Drew Brees and Kyle Orton, Purdue looks somewhat average comparatively without them. They expected letterman Brandon Kirsh to fill that role, but he has had a history of inconsistency and unrealized potential. So now redshirt freshman Curtis Painter is at the controls. Painter did an excellent job running the offense and picking up blitzes against MSU, but rookies are usually inconsistent at best.
It is this inconsistency that Illinois hopes to exploit on Saturday. If we can put sufficient pressure on Painter, and if we can disguise our defensive formations well enough to blitz without exposing gaping holes in our defensive backfield, we have a chance to limit Purdue's offense. Of course, the Boilermakers are dangerous any time due to their bevy of talented receivers. And Dorien Bryant is nearly as fast as Ohio State's mercurial Ted Ginn. If we give Painter time to relax and find his receivers, it will be another long day for the Illini.
Purdue was expected to have a great defense this year, but they have not always demonstrated greatness. Despite being top heavy in experienced upperclassmen, Purdue has been unable to stop most teams' offenses. That is, until their inspired play shut down Michigan State's vaunted offense in the second half last weekend. If the Boilers play that well against Illinois, Tim Brasic and company might just have another game to forget.
Of course, as in all games, Illinois must keep possession of the ball as long as possible to keep its young, beleaguered defense and Purdue's offense off the field. They must find a way to get Brasic to see and complete passes to downfield receivers without sacks and interceptions. And they must mix in enough running plays to keep the Boilermakers guessing. It would be wonderful to get an early lead and make the other team play from behind for a change.
If the Illini can keep the game close for three quarters and keep their confidence up, they have a chance at victory. One cannot begin to estimate how important such a victory would be, but it would be monumental.
Maybe Saturday, November 12, 2005, will not go down as one of the most important dates in UI football history, but it will if Illinois can find a way to win. So, despite all the gamblers listing the Illini as a guaranteed win for Purdue, you might be wise to take a radio to your Saturday festivities. Just in case...
Illinois @ Purdue: Preview
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