Improving Illini defense creates big challenge for Purdue

October 25, 2019

Jeff Brohm sees Lovie Smith's influence all over Illinois' improving defense.

He's mixed young players in with upperclassmen, created turnovers and just generally confounded offenses.

The Purdue coach has seen it on all the game tapes and expects to get a hefty dose of confusion when the Fighting Illini come to town Saturday.

"They are doing more things than they had in the past," Brohm said. "They are not as vanilla. They are going to change things up. They are going to attack the line of scrimmage. They always have a mixture of Cover 2 that they like to play. They are definitely disguising and doing many more things than they have in the past, and it's been more productive."

Statistically speaking, it doesn't look like much has changed.

Illinois (3-4, 1-3 Big Ten) ranks in the bottom three in the league in scoring defense, total defense, run defense, pass efficiency defense and third-down conversion defense. But dig deeper and the progression becomes clear. The Illini are seventh in sacks, eighth in red zone defense, second in turnover margin and have a league-high 17 takeaways including three in last week's 24-23 upset over then-No. 6 Wisconsin.

Smith expected nothing less.

"We've worked hard behind the scenes to win every football game. We have come up short in a few, but progress has been made," he said. "This confirms it to a lot of people who don't know what we are doing each day. We are on the right track, we are going to win a lot of games around here. That was one, and we need to win a second one this week."

The injury-depleted Boilermakers (2-5, 1-3) desperately need a win, too.

Four losses in five games have put their postseason hopes in peril though the West Division schedule gives Purdue a chance. After the Illinois game, they still have home dates against Nebraska and rival Indiana and road trips to Northwestern and the Badgers, now No. 13.

But lose Saturday, and the Boilermakers would have to win out for to reach Brohm his sixth straight bowl game as a head coach.

And he knows just how big the challenge will be in trying to win the coveted Cannon trophy for the fourth consecutive year.

"I think they are vastly improved from what we've played the last couple years," he said. "When you look at the Wisconsin game, they did a good job of stopping the run for the most part. They did a good job against the pass. They got a timely interception. They are creating more turnovers. And like I said, they are ranked ninth in the country on tackles for loss."


Brohm has ruled out defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal (knee surgery) for Saturday's game. Quarterback Elijah Sindelar (broken collarbone) won't play, either, and All-American receiver Rondale Moore (hamstring) is considered doubtful. The injury report also includes defensive back Jalen Graham (hip flexor), linebacker Cornel Jones (leg), receiver Jared Sparks (leg) and defensive lineman Branson Deen (undisclosed).

Sparks and Deen are listed as doubtful, Jones is considered questionable and Brohm remains hopeful Graham will play.


Illinois' defense hasn't cornered the market on improvement. Quarterback Brandon Peters also has progressed enough to catch the attention of Brohm and Smith.

"You can make the case that Brandon has played his best ball, and you want that," Smith said. "He played great football (against Wisconsin)."


Purdue receiver David Bell has been shredding defenses lately and the Boilermakers hope he can keep it up after winning the last two- Big Ten's freshman of the week awards. The Indianapolis native has topped the 100-yard mark three times in four games since Moore got hurt and has 22 catches for 235 yards and three touchdowns the last two weeks.

"Every game, we're going to have to utilize him and make sure we get others involved as well," Brohm said.