Illinois football travels to Purdue in search of first road win of season

Quarterback+Brandon+Peters+warms+up+before+the+game+against+Maryland+Sept.+17.+Illinois+football+travels+to+Purdue+in+search+of+a+first+road+win+of+season.

Cameron Krasucki

Quarterback Brandon Peters warms up before the game against Maryland Sept. 17. Illinois football travels to Purdue in search of a first road win of season.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

After another tough loss last week, Illinois will look to turn things around this Saturday when they travel to West Lafayette to face Purdue at 2:30 p.m. The Illini currently find themselves on a three-game losing streak and are struggling for signs of a turnaround.

Purdue is 2-1 this season and looks to be a relatively average team within the Big Ten. Unfortunately for Illinois, Purdue’s strong suit is its passing game. While Illinois sits as the worst pass defense in the Big Ten, Purdue happens to be the best passing offense, averaging 326.3 passing yards per game on high efficiency.

“This is the first (Big Ten game) on the road,” said head coach Bret Bielema. “A tremendous challenge. Got to see them play Saturday live and then work our way through the film. Obviously, offensively, a very talented group that has players on the perimeter. Number three (David Bell) is a really good player and the quarterback.”

Illinois’ primary point of concern will be the connection between Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer and Bell, the Boilermakers’ top receiver. Bell averaged over 100 receiving yards per game last season and has continued to do so this year, so the Illini defense will need to do everything they can to contain him.

On offense, Illinois has a laundry list of problems. Last week, quarterback Brandon Peters made a return for his first full start of the season but flailed en route to one of the worst games of his career. In the end, Peters went 10 for 26 with 185 yards and one interception. The performance was bad enough that Bielema seemed to consider putting backup Artur Sitkowski in the game, with him visibly warming up on the sideline in the fourth quarter.

Despite the shortfall last weekend, Bielema made it clear at this week’s press conference that Peters would be the starting quarterback. Part of the decision likely comes from physical ability, as Peters has a cannon for an arm that helps to stretch the field.

“I could tell (Peters) was putting a lot on himself,” Bielema said. “I said, ‘Listen, my friend. This is the first game we’ve played together where you’ve played more than the first couple series of the game.’ Unfortunately, it’s in game four. People forget it’s his first time going through it. There were a lot of learning moments for him.”

The strongest selling point for Illinois looking better offensively this week may be health. In the third quarter of last week’s game, top two running backs Josh McCray and Chase Brown both went down with injuries but should be back this week. Additionally, starting center Doug Kramer will return to help bolster what was a largely ineffective offensive line last week.

“I’ve been around a lot of good centers; (Kramer is) as good as I’ve been around,” Bielema said. “I think there’s two guys on our football team when they speak everybody listens: Doug Kramer on offense and Jake Hansen on defense, and both of them are playing at a high level.”

With glaring issues in almost every aspect of the game, Bielema has made a point of finding every little advantage possible to help the Illini improve their odds. While injuries might keep players out and a lack of talent might make it hard to win games, Bielema has emphasized that anybody can help generate energy from the sidelines.

“I talked about (the) word ‘strain,’” Bielema said. “Strain on that field is easy to see. … But, I showed the sidelines (in film), and I circled Kenenna (Odeluga) and I showed what strain was for him on that play. He cheered louder than anybody in that stadium. And that’s the stuff that will make a difference. It’s not going to be a great article for you guys. It’s not a great clip, but it’s what I know works.”

Illinois lost to Purdue last season 31-24 without Peters playing. He’ll have a chance this week to prove his worth in the matchup and demonstrate whether last week’s struggles were a fluke. Either way, all eyes will be on him.

@WesHollenberg

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