Asmussen | Beating Rutgers good, but beating Purdue would be better

Asmussen | Beating Rutgers good, but beating Purdue would be better

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — So, Illinois, you finally ended the Big Ten losing streak.

Want to really impress us? Beat somebody comparable in talent.

Like Purdue.

The Boilermakers come to town next Saturday for what might be the most important home game at Illinois since Ron Zook's team hosted Ohio State in 2011.

That one didn't go so well, the Illini dropping a 17-7 decision, the start of a six-game losing streak that cost Zook his job.

Illinois has been paying for that loss ever since, going through three head coaches and six sub-.500 seasons.

But suddenly, there is hope in Champaign-Urbana. About football. The game Red Grange and Dick Butkus used to play here.

Lovie Smith has been talking about the improvements his team had made. And he's got facts on his side. Now 3-2, the Illini could easily be 4-1 with a near miss against South Florida at Soldier Field. I'm an AP Top 25 voter and a 4-1 Illinois team with the lone loss to Penn State would have been under poll consideration.

That is a column for another day.

For now, the topic is the game against Purdue and what a win would mean for Illinois.

First, it has been a while since the Illini celebrated a home Big Ten win. The last one came on Nov. 5, 2016, Smith's rookie season at Illinois.

Second, win No. 4 puts Illinois within two victories of the postseason. And that has to be ultimate goal for the season. Barring a J Leman/Juice Williams-like run, the team isn't going to win the Big Ten West. But it can represent the conference in one of the endless postseason opportunities.

San Diego, Nashville, New York, San Francisco, Detroit, Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville. Just as there is no such thing as "bad pizza," there is no such thing as a "bad bowl trip."

Great food, swanky hotels, gifts and an exhibition game on national TV. What's not to like?

Third, I'm not the only one who needs convincing. The Illinois fans have been waiting to go all-in. Beat the closest neighbor in the Big Ten and more fans will show for later games at Memorial Stadium against Minnesota and Iowa.

Small crowds at home are becoming a problem for Illinois, both at the bank and in terms of reputation. Recruits like to see full houses and they will see them at most of the places Illinois is recruiting against.

The other side

Of course, the game is just as huge for Purdue. Jeff Brohm pulled off a mini-miracle in West Lafayette last season, leading the Boilermakers to a winning season and a bowl victory.

College football skeptics said "Yeah, but can you do it again?"

Early this season, it looked like the answer was "heck no."

Purdue dropped three excruciating games by a combined eight points against Northwestern, Eastern Michigan and Missouri. It looked like Purdue BB (Before Brohm).

But the Boilermakers figured it out, stunning Top 25 Boston College and going to Lincoln and rolling over Nebraska.

Purdue is the best 2-3 team in the country. A win at Illinois will keep slim bowl hopes alive.

Unlike Illinois, which plays only one of the Big Four from the East, Air Brohm has games remaining with Ohio State and Michigan State. In consecutive weeks. Good luck with that.

Knows his stuff

Rod Smith has made a difference in his first year as offensive coordinator. But the Illini are behind Purdue when it comes to production.

A former NFL quarterback, Brohm is credited with revitalizing the Purdue attack. The team is third in the Big Ten in yards per game, averaging almost 500. Only Ohio State and Penn State are better.

The Illini's challenge is magnified by the extra time Purdue has to prepare for the game. The Boilermakers had the weekend off, and I promise they made adjustments.

South Florida and Penn State laid out the opponent's game plan in second-half comebacks. Brohm is a smart guy who will take advantage of Illinois shortcomings.

More incentive is there for Brohm to win a game in Champaign: he was part of Zook's staff that got fired after the 2011 season.

In a classy move, he stayed on after Paul Petrino left and served as the winning offensive coordinator in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

He's a low-key guy so he won't likely talk much about the end at Illinois. I know Jeff and his family enjoyed their time here.

The chance to come back and win an important game against the school that let him go might be more motivation.

But, for Illinois, so is the chance to get closer to a potential bowl game. Both storylines will collide next Saturday in Champaign.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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