WEST LAFAYETTE — Coming off one of the biggest upsets in college football so far this season, Illinois will be paying a visit Saturday to struggling Purdue.
The Illini shocked No. 6-ranked and previously unbeaten Wisconsin 24-23 last week in Champaign. It marked the Fighting Illini’s first victory over a top-10 team since beating No. 1 Ohio State 28-21 on Nov. 10, 2007. It also snapped a string of 24 straight losses to AP-ranked opponents dating back to a 17-14 win over No. 22 Arizona State on Sept. 17, 2011.
A 39-yard field goal by kicker James McCourt, a native of Ireland, as time expired capped a nine-point comeback in the final six minutes to top the Badgers, on Homecoming at Memorial Stadium.
Illinois (3-4, 1-3 Big Ten West) trailed by as many as 13 points and faced a deficit of 23-14 with six minutes to play before a 29-yard TD pass from quarterback Brandon Peters to wideout Josh Imatorbhebhe with 5:53 left and an interception by Tony Adams with 2:32 left set the state for McCourt’s walk-off kick and the biggest upset in college football this season.
Purdue (2-5, 1-3 Big Ten West) fell short in its rally against Iowa last week, losing 26-20, as the Hawkeyes recovered a pair of onside kicks in the final three minutes to seal the victory.
Like his signature Chicago Bears defenses, head coach Lovie Smith’s Illini D excels at forcing turnovers, scoring points and making negative plays for the opposing offense.
The Illini lead the nation in both forced fumbles (13) and fumble recoveries (12). The defense also ranks sixth in turnovers gained (17), seventh in FBS in defensive touchdowns (2), ninth in tackles for loss per game (8.3), and 10th in turnover margin (+1.00).
“On defense, they are doing more things than they had in the past,”
Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said earlier this week. “They are not as vanilla. They are going to change things up. They are going to attack the line of scrimmage. They always have a mixture of their Cover 2 that they would like to play. They are definitely disguising and doing many more things than they have in the past, and it’s been more productive.”
One of the leaders of that defense is junior linebacker Jake Hansen, who has become one of the biggest takeaway threats in the game. He was named Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after posting 11 tackles, two forced fumbles, one sack and one TFL last week against Wisconsin. He leads the nation in both forced fumbles (seven) and fumbles recovered (three).
Senior linebacker Dele Harding leads the Big Ten in tackles (12.1 per game), ranking third in FBS following the Wisconsin game. Along with his 85 tackles, Harding has 6.5 TFLs, two interceptions, one forced fumble and one touchdown.
If that’s not enough, the Illini boast junior defensive end Oluwole Betiku Jr., a graduate transfer from USC who ranks sixth in the nation in sacks (1.14 per game) and ninth tackles for loss (1.6 per game) on the season.
“When you look at the Wisconsin game, they did a good job of stopping the run for the most part,” Brohm said. “They did a good job against the pass. They got a timely interception. They are creating more turnovers.”
Senior running backs Reggie Corbin (83 yards) and Dre Brown (70 yards) had the top two rushing performances. Corbin ranks fourth in the Big Ten in rushing yards (79.8) and fifth in yards per carry (5.70). He has 479 yards on the season to bring his career total to 2,165 yards — good for 13th on Illinois’ all-time rushing yardage list.
The Illini also have speed and power on the outside.
Junior WR Josh Imatorbhebhe, a transfer from USC, notched his first career 100-yard receiving game with five catches for 102 yards and one touchdown against Michigan on Oct. 12. His six touchdown receptions this season rank second in the Big Ten lead and 20th nationally. He leads the team with 364 receiving yards, had a team-best 16.5 yards per catch, and is second in catches (22).
The offense is directed by Michigan transfer Brandon Peters. Despite missing nearly two full games this season due to injury, Peters ranks 31st in FBS in points responsible for (14.0 per game) and 38th in touchdown passes (12).
So far this season, Peters has passed for 971 yards and 12 TDs, while rushing for two more scores.
Purdue and Illinois are tied in the overall series, 44-44-6, but the Boilers own a three-game win streak, including last year’s 46-7 shellacking in Champaign, Ill. The Boilers’ offense rolled up 611 total yards against Illinois, while allowing the Illini just 250 yards.
They’ll be playing for the coveted Cannon rivalry trophy, which Purdue has owned the last three seasons. Game time is set for noon and broadcast on the Big Ten Network.