The Purdue Boilermakers lost five straight games before surprising Ohio State. All were winnable games, but they couldn't get over the hump until last week when they finally put everything together. Now, they are confident and excited, eager to make Illinois their second win in a row under new coach Danny Hope.
Illini tight end Michael Hoomanawanui summed up the challenge at hand.
"That's all we needed going into their house, a big win for Purdue. But anyone can win on any given Saturday. It'll be another great test for us."
Purdue's offense could be the best in the Big 10. Fifth year senior Joey Elliot (6'-2", 216) leads the conference in average passing with 265.1 yards a game. He also leads the conference and is eleventh nationally in total offense, averaging 287.7 yards per game. As Illinois coach Ron Zook states, he has come into his own this year.
"I don't know if you slow him down. You try to keep him contained a little bit. He's done a great job. Their offense is one of the best in the conference. He's a guy that keeps getting better and better. He's waited his time, he's a coach's son, and you can tell he's a football player."
Hope inherited a number of quality receivers from predecessor Joe Tiller. Junior Keith Smith (6'-2", 226) is a big-play guy who is difficult to tackle. He leads the Big 10 and is fifth nationally in receptions per game, and he is 2nd and 11th nationally in yards per game at 101.43.
Fellow receiver Aaron Valentin (6'-1", 205), a fifth year senior, is sixth in the Big 10 in receptions and seventh in receiving yards. He also leads the Big 10 in punt return average and all-purpose yardage per game. Keith Carlos, a 6'-1", 200 pound junior, is a third wideout in PU's spread offense. Junior Kyle Adams (6'-4", 251) is the tight end.
PU also boasts a complimentary running game led by sophomore Ralph Bolden (5'-9", 194). Bolden is second in the Big 10 in rushing, averaging 91.7 yards per game. He is backed by fifth year senior Jaycen Taylor.
The Boilermakers also boasts a great kicker in sophomore Carson Wiggs. His four field goals against OSU netted him mention on the Lou Groza Award "Stars of the Week," and he was named the Big 10 Special Teams Player Of The Week. He has a long field goal of 59 yards this year.
Illini defensive backfield coach Mike Woodford says the PU offense could be the toughest they have faced so far.
"It's the scariest offense we've played all year. Their quarterback is outstanding, the wide receivers are good, the running back's good. From a defensive standpoint, watching those guys on tape, they're as good as we've played all year. It'll be a big challenge for us, absolutely.
"If you can stop the run, you can make them one dimensional. But not a lot of people have had success stopping the run. That's why they have great stats in both the running game and passing game. They're very balanced. It's hard to believe they were going into last week 1-5."
Junior defensive end Clay Nurse believes the Illini defense must face reality and play its heart out no matter the opponent.
"Defense hasn't got the job done. You have teams putting up yards on you. You stop them sometimes but you don't stop them consistently. You've got to go out there and get the job done.
"It's a make or break time for us right now. Our backs are against the wall, and we're running out of time on this season. Right now, it doesn't come down to being consistently the best. It comes down to getting the job done by any means necessary."
Purdue's defense has also played well. It forced Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor out of his game. They have talent among the defensive line and linebackers, and their defensive backfield has tons of experience.
Junior defensive end Ryan Kerrigan (6'-4", 263) was named National Defensive Player Of The Week for his performance versus OSU. His nine tackles included four tackles for loss and three sacks. He also forced two fumbles and recovered one. Sophomore Gerald Gooden (6'-3", 235) plays opposite Kerrigan at end, while the tackles are 5th year senior Mike Neal (6'-4", 302) and redshirt freshman Kawann Short (6'-4", 310).
SAM linebacker Jason Werner (6'-4", 221) is second in the conference and 5th nationally in tackles for loss with 14. He is joined by MIKE Chris Carlino, an 6'-2", 215 pound sophomore, and WILL sophomore Joe Holland (6'-1", 220). The backfield boasts two seniors, one fifth year player and one 6th year player.
Senior center Eric Block praises the Boilermaker defense.
"I watched the Ohio State game. They look pretty impressive. They have a lot of speed in the defensive line. They're good looking. They're linebackers are fast and are doing their jobs. We've got some stuff to work on as far as pass protection and everything else."
Like Purdue last week, Illinois enters this game with a 1-5 record. A victory could do wonders for morale. Zook noticed how Purdue gained confidence last week as the Buckeyes made mistakes. They played better and better as the game wore on. Zook knows that could happen to the Illini as well, but whether it does happen remains to be seen.
The Illini have had trouble defending the spread offense all season long, and they must face Purdue without senior safety Donsay Hardeman, out with a stiff neck. Junior Garrett Edwards is healthy enough to play, so he will replace Hardeman and help out freshman Walter Aikens, the other safety.
But the biggest problem may be on offense. Expected to be the strength of the team, the offense has failed to keep the chains moving due to penalties and mistakes. Open receivers aren't seeing the ball come their way. There have been breakdowns at every position, but quarterback gets the most attention.
As of Friday, the starting quarterback had not been announced. Zook said redshirt freshman Jacob Charest was getting a strong look this week and could either start or be chief backup to Juice Williams.
"Jacob got the most practice he's had in three weeks. I was impressed with what he did. We have to keep making changes and moves until the right things click."
Block says Charest lacks experience and is still learning.
"Jake definitely has a different demeanor from Eddie (McGee) or Juice. He's still trying to get a grasp of the offense. There's an awful lot going on at quarterback. His head is spinning a little bit I think. But he's starting to improve.
"I'm sure getting reps with the first team has helped his confidence. But he isn't always quite sure and must double check some things like giving us protections. The quarterback is responsible for giving us the protections based on where he's going with the ball. Jake's not real sure, so it kind of takes him a minute. But he's coming along. It's good to get him some reps."
According to Zook, the quarterback decision will be based on a simple formula.
"At the end of the week, if we feel like Juice gives us the best chance to win he will play. I think as a coaching staff, one of the things I've heard from a lot of people and one of my faults among many, is that sometimes I stay with people too long.
"It's not just Ron Zook's decision - it's a staff decision. It's about who gives us the best opportunity to win. I think Juice knows that and everybody else knows that."
Zook understated the importance of the game. But a sixth loss would end all hope of a winning season.
"We have to keep going. We're halfway through, and we have to be a lot better the second half than we were the first half of the season."
Hoomanawanui draws inspiration from Purdue's accomplishment against Ohio State.
"They were in the same situation, being 1-5 last week, and now they're on top of the mountain beating Ohio State last week. Hopefully we can get things figured out, and that will be us this week."