WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Jake Hansen carried Illinois’ “97 Strong” flag onto the field at Ross-Ade Stadium ahead of Saturday afternoon’s game at Purdue.
Nothing notable about that. A different Illini has carried the flag that honors the late Bobby Roundtree for every game.
That Hansen was in shorts and a T-shirt and wearing a backwards hat was the news. Illinois played without one of its starting linebackers against the Boilermakers during Saturday’s 13-9 loss. Compounding that issue was the fact starting cornerback Devon Witherspoon didn’t even make the trip to West Lafayette, nor did running back Chase Brown.
“We probably knew mid-week that Spoon wasn’t going to be able to play,” Illinois coach Bret Bielema said. “I’d kept that kind of under wraps. I kept him and Chase just where they were at. On Thursday, we knew they weren’t going to be ready for the game.
“There was an outside chance that Jake was going to be able to play. That’s why we brought him. But he got ruled out before the game started.”
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Alec McEachern and Khalan Tolson started at linebacker for Illinois with Hansen unavailable. Tony Adams was back in at cornerback after not starting last week against Maryland and played opposite Kendall Smith to start Saturday’s game at Purdue.
Even playing without two starters — and arguably the best two defensive players on the team — Illinois held Purdue to 315 yards of total offense.
“Injuries are a part of football,” Illinois safety Kerby Joseph said. “When we found out they were out and weren’t going to play, it was next man up. I believe in all my brothers, and my brothers believe in me.”
Bielema credited defensive backs coach Aaron Henry and linebackers coach Andy Buh for adjusting accordingly with Witherspoon and Hansen unavailable. Adams finished with one of Illinois’ two takeaways, picking off Purdue backup quarterback Aidan O’Connell late in the game.
“Those two guys knew, in theory, they’d be without their best player at their respective positions,” Bielema said of his assistant coaches, “and got guys ready in a short amount of time.”
Illinois’ other takeaway was an interception in the end zone by Joseph off O’Connell. That gives the Orlando, Fla., native two interceptions in the last three games after he got his first two weeks ago at Virginia. He also had a fumble recovery against Maryland on Sept. 17.
“I think he just continues to get smarter and smarter in the way he plays the game,” Bielema said of Joseph. “I like the way (defensive coordinator Ryan Walters has) worked with him individually just building his confidence up. This is the third game in a row now he’s come up with a turnover in some capacity. He’s a guy that just finds himself around the ball. I think he’d be the first to tell you, too, he hasn’t played a perfect game yet.”
Fellow safety Sydney Brown called Joseph’s growth this season “unreal.” The two have been at Illinois the same amount of time. Brown worked his way into the lineup first. Joseph has followed this season and has started in each of the last two games.
“To see the plays he’s made the past three weeks with two interceptions now and some great tackles on the field has been unreal,” Brown said. “I’m proud of him for making that step, and he’s filing in the role for sure. He’s just going to keep getting better each week.”
Not that Brown didn’t have to reel Joseph in after his interception. For at least a moment, Joseph looked like he wanted to try and return the pick from the end zone.
“My first reaction was, ‘Holy crap. Great play, man,’” Brown said. “Then I grabbed him and was like, ‘You’re not getting out of here.’ Now thinking about it, he maybe could have scored with it. Maybe I should have let him loose.
“Our goal is to score, honestly. That’s where my mind is at. If we can score the ball, we don’t even need the offense.”
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Sydney Brown nearly joined Hansen on the sideline early in Saturday’s game, which would have been a blow to the Illinois defense given he led the team with seven tackles and also had one pass breakup to tie defensive tackle Roderick Perry II for the team lead.
Brown delivered a massive hit on Purdue tight end Payne Durham in the first half. It knocked Durham’s helmet off, and he eventually had to be helped off the field and never returned. The play was reviewed for potential targeting.
Bielema knows that defensive backs play the position most susceptible to targeting penalties. He also felt confident Brown was in the clear.
“It was a violent hit and I felt very much for the health and safety of their player,” Bielema said. “I said it right away, ‘That was a clean hit, I believe.’ The officials made a very strong point to come to me and said they did take a look at it, they reviewed it and ruled it was, obviously, a non-targeting foul. That’s the violent part of the game. Unfortunately, people do get banged up and injured, but it was a clean hit.”
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Josh McCray became the first true freshman to start at running back for Illinois since Mike Epstein and Ra’Von Bonner did so in 2017. The Enterprise, Ala., native had a career day with a team-high 24 carries for 156 yards. At halftime, the Illini had 58 yards of total offense, and 56 of them belonged to McCray.
“He’s a super fun guy to block for,” Illinois sixth-year center Doug Kramer said. “You know he’s going to run through people. You know he’s going to be hard to tackle. He’s going to fight for every single yard. As an offensive line, that’s what you want. You want backs that are going to cram it in there and get the one yard, two yards — whatever it is — and then eventually they’re going to break the long ones.”
McCray averaged a team-best 6.5 yards per carry Saturday at Purdue. Jakari Norwood wasn’t far behind, with six carries for 33 yards, giving him 5.5 yards per carry. The combo gave Illinois a power-and-speed look.
“When we had a couple runs up inside with Reggie (Love) and Josh, I said, ‘Why don’t we get Jakari in there as a change of pace?’” Bielema said. “The thing that Jakari brings is he’s explosive, he’s powerful and he’s a very, very gifted back. I think we’ve got to try to figure out ways to use him more — especially if we’ve been pounding it up there with Josh and Reggie. He’s a nice complement to those two.”
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The Illinois offensive line had to work with its own change of pace look, too. While offensive lineman Alex Pihlstrom reprised his tight end role Saturday, lining up as an eligible receiver (wearing No. 47 instead of No. 75) in the Illini’s jumbo packages, Jack Badovinac and Blake Jeresaty split time at left guard.
“We’ve been getting reps with that since spring time and into fall camp,” Kramer said. “We’re definitely used to that. It’s a little change of pace. Each guy is a little bit different, but you’ve just got to make the adjustments and move forward with it.
“Any time we can get the five or six guys that can really make plays on the offensive line together, that’s huge. It’s big for communication. We’re five games into the season now, so we’re starting to build a pretty good rapport.”