Game of the weak: Illinois, Purdue searching for first conference wins

By By: Stephen Bourbon

It’s a game both teams have circled on the schedule.

The only teams in the Leaders division without a conference win, Illinois and Purdue will look to break losing streaks in West Lafayette, Ind., on Saturday. Illinois (3-7, 0-6 Big Ten) will be actually favored in a conference game for the first time this season — looking to break a program record 20 consecutive Big Ten losses — when the team goes on the road against Purdue (1-9, 0-6) who have lost eight straight games overall.

With a bowl game out of the picture, the Illini have focused on breaking the program-long conference losing streak and the final two teams on the schedule, Purdue and Northwestern, have combined zero Big Ten wins this season.

“You know, the opponent doesn’t really affect the type of game we’re going to have,” senior linebacker Jonathan Brown said. “We dictate what we do. When people have big games, it’s because of things we’ve done.”

The Boilermakers are having a particularly rough season under first year head coach Darrell Hazell, who knows Illini head coach Tim Beckman as both were position coaches at Ohio State during the mid-2000s.

Purdue has yet to beat an FBS program this season, with its only victory coming against Indiana State on Sept. 7. Purdue has lost by double-digits in eight of its nine losses, as its offense hasn’t been able to keep games competitive.

The Boilers start true freshman Danny Etling at quarterback after benching incumbent senior Rob Henry earlier in the season. Etling has experienced some growing pains in the first six games of his college career, completing just 50.8 percent of his passes with five touchdowns compared to six interceptions.

“He’s gotten better, he’s developing,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “They’re very similar to us. They’re better than their record shows. They’re close.”

The Boilers will also be without one of their top wide receivers for the rest of the season. Redshirt freshman B.J. Knauf sustained a high ankle sprain in Purdue’s loss to Penn State last Saturday and won’t return in the team’s final two games. Knauf has been one of the top playmakers for Purdue on both offense and in the return game on special teams.

The Illini have better news on the injury front, as starting left tackle Simon Cvijanovic is “probable,” according to Beckman. The junior’s return will help bolster an offensive line that gave up six sacks against Ohio State.

The strength of the Purdue defense is up front with defensive tackle Bruce Gaston and in the secondary with senior cornerback Ricardo Allen. Gaston leads the team in tackles for loss and sacks, while Allen has a team-high three interceptions and three pass breakups. Purdue shifts the four-year starting cornerback from the outside, to the slot and all over the field, something Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is aware of.

“It’s funny, we faced them two years ago and they did the same thing,” he said. While the head coach at Western Michigan, Cubit faced Purdue in the 2011 Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl, losing 37-32. “That’s what is good about our offense though. We move all our guys all around, too, so they won’t get a bead on our guys. So it’ll be a little bit of a chess match back and forth with him.”

Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and @steve_bourbon.