Illinois hopes to avoid Purdue-like fate
I thought Illinois was the worst team in the Big Ten before last week, when the Illini escaped an FCS opponent thanks to a last-minute overthrow. Now I don’t think they’re the 12th team in the Big Ten.
But it’s not about what the Illini did — they didn’t exactly earn their way up those rankings. It’s about what Purdue did. Or, more accurately, what Purdue had done to it by the team set to play Illinois at Memorial Stadium this Saturday.
The Cincinnati Bearcats obliterated the Boilermakers thanks to a 28-0 second half, landing on a final score of 42-7.
Illinois can’t be that bad, can it?
If we get down to it, the reason Illinois “rose” to No. 11 in The Daily Illini’s Big Ten power rankings this week is because none of us want to see the Orange and Blue suffer a worse fate than what befell Purdue last week. The Illini can’t be that bad.
Even still, we can’t act as though Purdue is 35 points worse than Illinois. The teams speculatively share a cell in the basement of the conference. But there are reasons to suggest Cincinnati won’t hand the Illini a similar drubbing.
The Bearcats won’t be at home like they were last week. Cincinnati’s first win came in front of 36,007 fans — more than 6,000 fewer than Illinois’ listed attendance number. However, Cincinnati’s smaller stadium only seats about 36,007 people; the crowd was heralded as the largest in stadium history and the energy transferred quite noticeably from the stands to the Bearcats bench.
It was opening week in college football, and the Bearcats had every reason to be excited. If Memorial Stadium is empty enough, maybe the crowd will dampen the spirits of even the visitors, as opposed to the home underdogs who will see scores of unoccupied bleachers and feel motivated.
Probably not, but we can hope.
In his first year coaching Cincinnati, Tommy Tuberville restructured his offense a little bit — this was a surprise for Purdue, but Illinois has a week to prepare for it.
Six-foot-five quarterback Munchie Legaux has probably the best name in football (last name is pronounced leh-go, as in the Eggo Waffles tagline) and appears to have control of the starting spot in the quarterback battle, as Brendon Kay was relegated last week to spot duty in a role similar to Aaron Bailey’s. Kay is 1 inch shorter and about 25 pounds heavier than Legaux.
Legaux is a playmaker with his arms and legs, as he had 145 yards passing and 55 yards rushing Saturday.
And Cincinnati dominated on the ground. Ralph David Abernathy and junior college transfer Hosey Williams (again, the names!) got 15 carries and one touchdown each for a combined 122 yards as the Bearcats handily won the time-of-possession battle. Illini offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is probably salivating at the thought of a running back tandem like that.
Abernathy is just a little guy, at about 5-foot-7, 160 pounds. Williams is bigger, an even 6 feet and weighing 200 pounds. Cincy will be able to change the pace in the backfield between quick-and-light and quicker-and-lighter.
So yes, in many ways, Cincinnati has what Illinois wants. A stable quarterback situation, an effective running tandem, a packed home stadium and a victory over a Big Ten opponent. Not to mention the sack and two interceptions the Bearcats defense notched against the Boilermakers.
Mike Thomas’ old program is something of a model for his new, only now he’s on a bigger stage, with more seats to fill.
This game against Cincinnati, a real FBS opponent, should act as a great litmus test for the rest of the season. A huge loss, and we can expect more huge losses. A competitive game, and we can expect more competitive games. A win, and we can stop pretending to have expectations.
The only hope for Illini fans this weekend is for their team to come out looking more like Cincinnati, and much less like Purdue.
Eliot is a senior in Media. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EliotTweet.