Opportunities dwindling for seniors to leave their mark

By Jason Grodsky

Eleven Illinois seniors will step onto Zuppke Field Saturday to play in the final home game of their careers as the team squares off against Purdue at Memorial Stadium tomorrow at 11 a.m.

The eleven Illini will be honored prior to kickoff. Since arriving in Champaign, the seniors have gone through plenty of ups and downs and have accumulated an 8-36 record. With Saturday’s Purdue game and next weekend’s trip to Evanston remaining, the seniors are looking forward to the opportunity to register two more notches in the win column before they hang up their jerseys.

“Knowing this is my last game at Memorial Stadium, I’m really going to cherish it,” senior running back Pierre Thomas said. “I’m going to take one big look around at the stadium and at the fans and take a photographic memory for the rest of my life.”

Standing in the seniors and Illinois’ way of obtaining a victory in their final home game of the season will be Purdue. The Boilermakers (6-4, 3-3 Big Ten) come into the game with the Big Ten’s top-rated offense, averaging 419.7 total yards per game.

A big reason for the Boilermakers’ success on the offensive side of the ball has been the play of junior quarterback Curtis Painter. Painter leads the Big Ten in passing yards with 2,875 and is averaging 287.5 yards per game.

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“Painter is a good player,” Illinois head coach Ron Zook said. “He’s a big reason why they are leading the Big Ten in offense and it’s going to take a great defensive effort on our part to stop him.”

Facing a good offense will be no new challenge for the Illini defense. In Illinois’ previous two games, the Illini faced the Big Ten’s second-best rushing team in No. 16-ranked Wisconsin and the Big Ten’s top scoring offense in No. 1-ranked Ohio State.

The Illini held the Badgers to 99 yards rushing, 84.5 yards under their season average per game, and held the Buckeyes to its lowest scoring total, passing yards and total yards of the season.

On paper, the defense is vastly improved from last season. This season’s unit is holding opponents to 176.7 less yards per game and have cut opponents points per game down from 39.5 to 25.2. Illinois’ defense ranks fourth overall in the Big Ten behind Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State, giving up just 292.7 yards per game.

A big reason for the Illini’s drastic improvement on defense from last year to this year has been the play of junior linebacker J Leman. The junior leads the Big Ten in tackles with 11.7 per game, and his 19-tackle performance against top-ranked Ohio State last week earned him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors.

“Last year it was a tough year personally and for the defense as a whole,” Leman said. “On the defensive side of the ball we’ve all improved vastly. I’m just the product of everyone’s improvement.”

Despite Illinois’ great play on the defensive side of the ball during the Big Ten season, the Illini have still only posted two wins on the year.

With two games remaining on the schedule and the chance at a bowl game out of the picture, the Illini are hoping to build toward next year and find the ability to close out games they’ve been lacking this season.

“Right now it’s all about building confidence and finding ways to come away with wins at the end of games,” freshman quarterback Juice Williams said. “We just have to find a way to compete and finish teams no matter what the other team’s rankings or records are.”