Illinois’ struggles continue in loss at Purdue

At the conclusion of Saturday’s matchup at Ross-Ade Stadium, the Boilermakers and the Fighting Illini left the field in different directions, both literally and figuratively.

For the fifth straight game, Illinois (1-6, 0-5 Big Ten) lost by double digits to a Big Ten opponent, falling at Purdue, 24-14. The Boilermakers (3-5, 2-2), on the other hand, won back-to-back games for the first time this season, riding a balanced offensive attack to follow up last week’s upset win against then-No. 7 Ohio State.

“Obviously things haven’t worked out, but it’s not because we’re not trying or sticking people in there, or trying to do the things that you need to do,” Illinois head coach Ron Zook said.

The Illini faced a 21-7 halftime deficit despite taking a lead in the first half for the second straight week. On Illinois’ second drive of the game, sophomore running back Mikel LeShoure took an option pitch from senior quarterback Juice Williams and ran past the Purdue defense for a 65-yard game. LeShoure was taken down at Purdue’s 4-yard line, and senior running back Daniel Dufrene punched it into the end zone on the next play for an early 7-0 lead.

“It felt good to get that run. The receivers held their blocks downfield, and I was just able to break free,” said LeShoure, who finished with 122 yards on 15 carries. “I just wish I could have been able to take it in.”

But it was the Purdue running game that stole the show Saturday, racking up 220 yards on the ground, 171 coming in the first half. Purdue running back Ralph Bolden had 78 yards on 21 carries, while backup Jaycen Taylor contributed 71 yards on six carries. Both backs had touchdowns in the first half.

“We matched up with them, and we were in the right defense for what they were doing, we just didn’t make the plays,” co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch said.

Disch said the Illini’s struggles against the rush in the first half were due to the defense’s inability to correctly read the Purdue offense.

“When they are in a two-back offense, they’re going to run the ball, and when they’re in a one-back, they’ll pass,” Disch said. “It’s not rocket science, you just have to bow up and make the plays.”

Purdue quarterback Joey Elliott complemented the running game with 166 yards through the air on 15 of 24 passing. The fifth-year senior also had 62 yards rushing and a touchdown.

For an Illini defense that entered the game last in the Big Ten in both passing and rushing defense, Disch said the unit’s inexperience has been a factor.

“It’s probably a little more than I would like to admit,” Disch said. “You just have to be where you belong every play. A lot of the times we’re out of position. Some of that is youth, and some of that is on us coaches.”

After declining to name a starter at quarterback during the week, Zook went with Williams under center, making the senior Illinois’ career leader in starts for a quarterback with 40.

Williams, who declined to speak to the media after the game, was pulled after throwing an interception on the third series of the game. Redshirt freshman Jacob Charest made his collegiate debut, completing 4 of 8 passes for 52 yards. The two split duties at quarterback throughout the game.

“We said in the beginning of the week that we were going to play Jacob,” Zook said. “The decision is, ‘Do you start him or do you bring him in with the pressure?’ With the situation we were in, we were going to bring him in the second or third series. He knew that and Juice knew that. It’s pretty hard to be brought in that situation, but I thought he made some nice plays.”

Charest said he was happy just to be out on the field.

“I think it was a satisfactory game, not a great game,” Charest said of his debut. “I definitely have a lot of room to grow. I think it was a decent coming-out game. I could have done better, but I could have done worse.”

With just more than three minutes remaining in the second quarter, in his second series of the game, Charest completed his first career pass, finding senior tight end Michael Hoomanawanui for an 11-yard completion. Five plays later, the Illini elected to go for the first down on a fourth-and-4 at the Purdue 35-yard line. Charest found sophomore tight end Hubie Graham wide open down the right sideline for a 31-yard gain.

After the game, Charest was all smiles while recalling the play.

“That was awesome. That was a great feeling,” Charest said. “That was definitely one of the most fun feelings I’ve ever had.”

Charest chided his teammate for getting tripped up on Purdue’s 4-yard line.

“We’ve got to get Hubie on the treadmill to get him a little faster so he can get in the end zone,” Charest said with a laugh.

After two Purdue penalties gave the Illini a first-and-goal on Purdue’s 1-yard line, season-long problems in the red zone continued for the Illini.

Sophomore running back Jason Ford rushed for a one-yard loss, and junior wide receiver Arrelious Benn’s touchdown run on the next play was negated by a holding penalty on senior Eric Block.

Sophomore kicker Matt Eller missed a 23-yard field goal as time expired in the half, leaving the Illini trailing 21-7.

“This season, whenever we get in the red zone, there’s this invisible wall,” Zook said. “We get it in there, and then there’s a holding call. What are you going to do?”

Williams scored on a six-yard quarterback draw on the Illini’s opening drive of the second half, cutting the deficit to 21-14. But Illinois never seriously threatened again, and Purdue got a 25-yard field goal from Carson Wiggs late in the third quarter to make it a two-possession game.

Zook said that the team’s struggles near the end zone have been especially frustrating for an offense that ranks last in the conference in scoring.

“If things were going normally as we thought they would be, that would have been a big blow,” Zook said of failing to score on the drive. “But now you just have to take that in stride. That’s what’s frustrating.”