Illinois hopes to extend Purdue’s struggles
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Illinois coach Tim Beckman was asked this week if Saturday’s game against Purdue is a must win.
“Every game’s a must win,” Beckman said before quickly moving on.
This one, though, may be more so than most for the Illini (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten).
The Boilermakers (2-3, 0-1) are probably the most clearly beatable opponent still on the schedule for the Illini.
Get that fourth win and the search for the two more that would get the Illini to a bowl game gets easier. And with just nine total wins and one conference victory in his first two-plus seasons in Champaign, Beckman and the Illini could use a bowl appearance.
Lose to Purdue and the path to six wins is much less clear with remaining games against Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State and Northwestern.
Purdue might look at Illinois as one of the more manageable opponents it faces, too. The Illini defense, in particular, has struggled, giving up a conference-worst 35 points a game.
The Boilermakers’ offense, which didn’t score a touchdown in last week’s 24-10 loss to Iowa, could certainly use a boost, coach Darrell Hazell said.
“Oh, there are certainly things that need to be fixed,” he said.
Things to look for Saturday at Memorial Stadium:
LUNT’S BACK: A week after missing the 45-14 loss at Nebraska, quarterback Wes Lunt confirmed he’s ready to return.
Lunt sprained his right knee two games ago against Texas State and finished that game but was held out against the Cornhuskers.
Illinois has to like its odds better with Lunt. The redshirt sophomore is averaging a Big Ten-best 309.2 yards a game and has thrown for 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. He’s engineered second-half comebacks in all of Illinois’ wins.
Pressuring Lunt, who doesn’t run well, will be important, Hazell said.
“He wants to be in the pocket. He does not like to be pushed outside the pocket,” Hazell said.
BOILER RUSH: Coming off that injury, Lunt can’t take much comfort in the Boilermakers defense he’ll see. Purdue is third in the Big Ten in sacks with 13.
The quarterback will need to know when to throw the ball away, Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said.
“Don’t wait to throw the ball out of there and live another day,” Cubit said.
QUARTERBACK QUESTION: Purdue managed just 72 passing yards in last weekend’s 24-10 loss to Iowa and didn’t score an offensive touchdown.
That performance had Hazell hedging his answer when asked whether usual starter Danny Etling or backup Austin Appleby would start this week, or even, for that matter, what factors would go into the decision.
“We’ll know when we see it,” Hazell said.
RUN DEFENSE: Illinois’ has been rough. Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah had 208 yards on 22 mostly first-half carries and three touchdowns last Saturday. The Illini are giving up a Big Ten-worst 229.6 yards a game on the ground.
And the Boilermakers have shown they can run.
Akeem Hunt is averaging 6 yards a carry and 53.8 a game, including 90 against Iowa. Raheem Mostert, who sat out the Iowa game, is averaging 58.6 yards a game.
Hazell said Purdue should have the chance to move the ball against Illinois.
“We’ve got to break tackles. There are going to be opportunities to hit big plays if we can break some of those tackles,” he said.
ROAD TRIP: If Purdue can take comfort in any piece of its schedule, it’s the seven home games.
Saturday will be the Boilermakers’ first real road game after four games in West Lafayette and one, against Notre Dame, in Indianapolis.
And Purdue will only hit road three more times this season, at Minnesota, Nebraska and Indiana.
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