WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The ending against Maryland was a lesson for Illinois.
A tough one, too, with the Terrapins overcoming a late touchdown deficit to not just send the game into overtime but win outright in regulation.
A similar scenario played out Saturday afternoon at a nearly sold-out Ross-Ade Stadium on a picturesque afternoon. Yet the ending left the Illini fan base with another grotesque feeling.
Illinois had a 9-6 lead with 9 minutes, 33 seconds left in the fourth quarter. First-year Illinois coach Bret Bielema called a timeout and opted to punt instead of go for it — or kick a field goal — with the ball at the Purdue 34-yard line.
Bielema again put his trust in an Illini defense that had played just as well, if not better, against the Boilermakers than it did the previous week against Maryland. But the result was the same, too.
Needing one last stop, Illinois couldn’t get it.
Purdue second-string quarterback Aidan O’Connell methodically led the Boilermakers 94 yards in less than four minutes and scored the only touchdown of the game, with O’Connell hitting TJ Sheffield for a 14-yard touchdown pass.
A 13-9 advantage with 5:44 left turned into a 13-9 victory in front of 52,840 fans after the Illini offense stalled in the red zone when only a touchdown would do.
“I think everybody that talks about going for it, they’re thinking about they’re getting it,” Bielema said about his decision to punt. “They don’t think about what happens if you don’t get it. I’m trying to win a game, right? Not lose a game. I know that sounds silly because we just lost it, but it’s the decision I would make 100 times over.”
Bielema didn’t like his team’s chances with the play call it had for the fourth-and-two scenario. He also didn’t want to kick a field goal in that scenario even after James McCourt had made three earlier field goals, including another from 51 yards. It was the kick McCourt — who holds the Illini program record with six field goals from at least 50 yards — missed that gave Bielema pause.
“We had just missed from the 36,” Bielema said. “The ball was really in the same position. … The one before I just didn’t feel good about. The wind had been whirling all day. We were up by three and felt we could pin the ball deep. And our defense had been playing well the whole day.”
Bielema concluded the odds of making Purdue drive nearly the entire lengthy of the field after a Blake Hayes punt were better than his other two options. It put even more of a burden on the Illinois defense after that group carried the day for a second straight game. A burden that proved too heavy.
“I believe in our defense,” veteran Illinois safety Sydney Brown said. “I think coach believes in us and what we can do. Honestly, it wasn’t enough to win the game (Saturday). … There comes a point where I think we’ve just got to take that next step as a defense. I think that’s something that we’re going to see as guys get more comfortable in the roles that they’re playing. You’ve just got to keep moving forward.”
Illinois will move forward with Bielema’s goal of complementary football proving elusive the last four weeks. The Illini had enough of it Week 0 to knock off Nebraska on Aug. 28. Then the defense faltered against Texas San Antonio and Virginia. It’s been the offense’s turn the last two weeks for two more losses to Maryland and Purdue.
In turn, Illinois concluded September with an 0-4 record, the first time the program hasn’t won at least one game in September — last season’s COVID-19 pandemic-affected season that started Oct. 20 not withstanding — since the 1997 season. That team, led by another first-year Illini coach in Ron Turner, ended up 0-11.
How Saturday’s game played out was what Bielema wanted. A bend, but don’t break defense that got a little physical and made Purdue play a style it doesn’t prefer. Then a grind-it-out offense that could chew up clock as much as yardage.
Illinois got the first part of that save for the final drive. The second part was much more elusive. True freshman running back Josh McCray did his part with 24 carries for a career-high 156 yards. Finishing drives was the issue. That McCourt did all the scoring with his three field goals was the problem.
“We’re moving the ball down the field and getting within field goal range, but that’s not enough,” sixth-year Illinois center Doug Kramer said. “We need touchdowns. That comes down to execution and finishing. When you get down toward the (red zone), that’s the most important thing. The fine details matter even more.
“The game of football is all about execution. There’s no secret recipe. You get a play called, you’ve got to execute it at the end of the day.”
Bielema said his team understands the concept of complementary football. Making it happen has been the stumbling block. The complement he wanted to McCray’s grind-it-out style was just a handful of vertical passing plays. Other than a pass interference call on Purdue, Illinois didn’t get it. Brandon Peters struggled in his second straight game, completing 14 of 26 passes for just 100 yards.
“We talked all week about the type of game we wanted to play, and this is exactly what it was,” Bielema said. “Offensively, we did want to make it a physical game. We wanted to come downhill at them and take advantage of some opportunities. I think we threw the ball deep three or four times, and we weren’t able to come up with one of those big plays. We’d like one of those 50-50 balls to come up with it. … I think, for us, we’ve got to consistently grind it out and when those shot plays come — those moments come — we’ve got to capitalize on at least half of them.”