College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The Cannon will stay in Indiana.

Purdue outlasted Illinois 13-9 on Saturday afternoon in front of 52,840 fans at Ross-Ade Stadium, with a questionable fourth-down call in the fourth quarter by Bret Bielema once again coming to the forefront for the Illini.

Illinois (1-4, 1-2 Big Ten) suffered its fourth straight loss and did not win a game in September for the first time since the 1997 team finished 0-11.

With Illinois leading 9-6 and facing a fourth-and-2 at Purdue's 34-yard line midway through the fourth quarter, Bielema opted to send punter Blake Hayes out onto the field instead of James McCourt for a 51-yard field goal attempt. McCourt holds the Illini career record for most field goals — six — of at least 50 yards.

Hayes' punt pinned Purdue at its own 6-yard line, but the Boilermakers proceeded to go 94 yards for the eventual game-winning touchdown with less than six minutes left.

Illinois had a chance, driving down to Purdue's 19-yard line and had a first-and-10 with a little more than a minute left. But trailing 13-9 and with a field goal out of the question, a run by Josh McCray didn't gain any yards on first down and then Brandon Peters had three straight incompletions, allowing Purdue to take two knees and win the game.

McCray had a breakout performance for Illinois, with the true freshman rushing for 156 yards on 24 carries. Another true freshman, receiver Pat Bryant, came down with three catches for 25 yards on the final Illinois drive to put the Illini in Purdue territory.

But Peters struggled for the second straight game, completing 14 of 26 passes for 100 yards.

Illinois will try to end its four-game skid at 11 a.m. next Saturday when nonconference foe Charlotte (3-1) visits Memorial Stadium.

***

Purdue is back ahead after scoring the game's first touchdown. And the Illinois offense now needs to answer with its first touchdown or Bret Bielema's program will head back to Champaign with a four-game losing streak.

Aidan O'Connell connected with T.J. Sheffield on a 14-yard touchdown pass to put the Boilermakers back in front. The touchdown capped a crisp 10-play, 94-yard drive that took just under four minutes to complete against an Illinois defense that had intercepted two passes earlier in the second half.

And came after Bret Bielema elected to send Blake Hayes out to punt on fourth-and-2 from the Purdue 34-yard line instead of sending out James McCourt for a 51-yard field goal attempt. McCourt holds the school's career record for most field goals of 50-plus yards.

Now comes the big question: can Brandon Peters, Josh McCray and the rest of the Illini offense respond?

***

James McCourt remains the only scoring option in the Illinois offense. The super senior kicker drilled a 45-yard field goal to start the fourth quarter to give the Illini a slim 9-6 lead. He's now 3 of 4 on field goals for all of the Illini's points.

***

Was it pretty? No. But did Illinois put together an extended drive to start the second half? You bet. 

Of course, even after getting into a four-and-1 situation in the red zone (the first trip of the game), Illinois settled for a 35-yard James McCourt field goal. So, in a way, a wasted 13-play, 58-yard drive that ate up 6 minutes, 42 seconds of the third quarter.

Brandon Peters did complete some passes, including three for first downs. But the predictable Illinois offense was still predictable. Just watch. Save for one play (a completion to Tip Reiman), Illinois has run the ball every time its been in 11-personnel (two tight ends) with Carlos Sandy and Pat Bryant the only receivers on the field.

***

This is the only stat you need from the first half.

Josh McCray has rushed 11 times for 56 yards. Everyone else on the team has accounted for 2 yards on 16 plays. Brandon Peters getting sacked twice for minus-20 yards is the biggest culprit, although completing just 4 of 8 passes for 17 yards isn't much better. Reggie Love III rushing five times for 2 yards hasn't helped either.

***

James McCourt is the Illinois offense. The super senior kicker just drilled a 51-yard field goal into the wind to cut the Illini's deficit in half.

That McCourt was on the field for a 51-yarder is the issue. Illinois had a third-and-8 situation. The answer? Run the ball with Reggie Love for a gain of nothing. Why is Brandon Peters on the field at this point?

***

Considering the difference in total yardage through the first 11 1/2 minutes of today's game, Illinois should be pleased it only trails 6-0 after Mitchell Fineran hit a 30-yard field goal for Purdue.

The Boilermakers have 103 yards of offense. Illinois has minus-13 after rushing twice for zero yards on the first drive and Brandon Peters getting strip sacked for a 13-yard loss that could have been worse if Vederian Lowe hadn't recovered the fumble. Not ideal.

***

Looks like it's going to be a "bend, but try not to break" approach from the Illinois defense today at Purdue. Probably the right move with Devon Witherspoon and Jake Hansen not playing. The former didn't travel. The latter is here but in shorts, a T-shirt and a backward hat.

Plenty of bending on the opening drive of the game, though. Purdue drove 69 yards on 15 plays in 5 minutes, 49 seconds. The end result? A 23-yard field goal by Mitch Fineran. That's a "win" for the Illini.

***

The Illinois travel roster has now been distributed. Not on it? Chase Brown and Devon Witherspoon. So the Illini will be without their top running back and one of their starting cornerbacks.

Brown was injured last week against Maryland, but Illinois coach Bret Bielema said all week he should be available today against Purdue. Witherspoon is the bigger surprise. We'll find out after the game (or at least ask Bielema) why they didn't make the trip.

One other traveler note ...

- True freshman Josh McCray, Daniel Edwards, Pat Bryant, Tyler Strain, DJ Johnson, Kenenna Odeluga, Zachary Barlev and Josh Kreutz made the trip. McCray and Johnson have already played this season. Per Bielema, Odeluga will be next. Also, McCray could have a huge role with no Brown in the backfield.

***

The vagaries of college football schedules in the Big Ten, with conference games now on tap nearly every week of the season, makes for an interesting matchup today in West Lafayette, Ind. 

Illinois will be playing its third Big Ten game, having beaten Nebraska in Week 0 and losing to Maryland last week. Purdue? Today is the Boilermakers' first conference game after starting the year 2-1 with wins against Oregon State and the disaster that is UConn and a loss last week to Notre Dame.

Will that be an advantage for Illinois? I honestly don't know. It's just an interesting data point.

***

A few observations from the informal warmups before pregame warmups actually start ...

-  Illinois coach Bret Bielema said Keith Randolph would be back and available for today's game. And the Illini defensive lineman looks ready. He was moving well when he was on the field (and jogged off). The Belleville native also looked pretty spry trying to field some practice punts by Blake Hayes and Hugh Robertson.

- While we're on the subject of punters, Robertson absolutely stuck some punts inside the 5-yard line. Illinois might be in good hands next season once Blake Hayes exhausts his eligibility.

- Brandon Peters spent a good chunk of his time on the field throwing to Casey Washington. Art Sitkowski, meanwhile, has apparently chosen Donny Navarro as his target, and Ryan Johnson is throwing to Brian Hightower right now. 

- Josh McCray hauled in a rather impressive one-handed catch early in the informal warmups. His quarterback? Defensive lineman Jamal Woods. It's the Alabama-to-Alabama connection.

***

Good afternoon from Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Ind. It's probably the nicest day I've ever experienced a football game at Purdue, with a forecast for sunny skies and mid-60s temperature at kickoff. Usually? Think rain. Lots of it.

Like the last time Illinois and Purdue played here in Indiana. Downpour. Deluge. Monsoon-like conditions. Take your pick.

That type of weather probably better suited the Illini back in their 2019 win. Dre Brown ground out more than 100 yards in the Illinois run game, and a couple other backs kept up the rushing onslaught.

A sunny day? Purdue is probably chomping at the bit to start slinging the ball around. That should concern Illinois. While the Illini defense played better last week against Maryland, they still gave up 350 passing yards to Taulia Tagovailoa. 

The only upside for Illinois is that Purdue star wide receiver David Bell might not play after suffering a concussion last week against Purdue. But that still leaves a potentially dangerous tight end in Payne Durham (and tight ends have roasted this Illini defense) and wide receiver Milton Wright (who had the best game of his career last year in Champaign).

Illinois needs to keep the Purdue passing game in check a little better this week than its shown in any of the past three weeks (and three losses). And then the Illini need their own passing  game to be better. At worst, Brandon Peters has to complete better than 38 percent of his passes. That's a low bar.

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

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