Coaches Lovie Smith of the University of Illinois and Jeff Brohm of Purdue would probably enjoy a quiet hour of conversation and dose of mutual understanding. They have much in common this Big Ten Conference football season.
Unfortunately, there is no time as Illinois (2-6, 0-5) and Purdue (3-5, 1-4) prepare to play at 11 a.m. Saturday (BTN) at West Lafayette, Ind., with each team trying to end a losing streak.
Illinois has lost six straight and Purdue three in a row, including a heartbreaking 25-24 home loss to Nebraska last week. That game still stings because Purdue surrendered a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter. The Cornhuskers drove 70 yards in seven plays to score the winning touchdown with 14 seconds to go.
A common thread for Smith and Brohm is how their teams have been unable to finish scoring opportunities and close games. Purdue especially has been frustrated in close games, losing 17-9 at Wisconsin, 14-12 at Rutgers and the one-pointer to Nebraska in the three-game losing streak.
Brohm, the first-year head coach who was the quarterbacks coach for Ron Zook at Illinois in 2010 and 2011, is known as an offensive coach who develops high-caliber quarterback play. But this year’s team has been unable to settle on a quarterback and has leaned more heavily on its defense and run game.
“In third down situations, unless it’s four yards or less, most of the time it’s a passing situation,” Brohm said. “We have not been able to produce in the passing game. That’s just the fact of it. Lately it’s probably gotten a little bit worse. People are catching on to what our strengths and weaknesses are.”
Brohm said junior David Blough will start at quarterback but the coach has often turned to sophomore Elijah Sindelar in relief.
Rotating quarterbacks is another thing Brohm and Smith have in common. Illinois gave up on Chayce Crouch as the starter after four games, converting him to tight end. The job went to Jeff George Jr. but is now being shared with true freshman Cam Thomas.
George Jr., who had turnover issues early, has not thrown an interception the last two games. But Thomas, a dangerous runner, has three interceptions in the last two games.
“The first thing is taking care of the ball,” Smith said. “That would solve a lot of our problems. We’re using the two quarterbacks to try to win games and we haven’t won any. Jeff has been protecting the football better so we’ll see how it goes this week.”
Thomas, who led Illinois in rushing each of the last two weeks, didn’t play until two weeks ago so Smith said he’s the one freshman who is playing catchup.
"He got a later start and last week he took steps, he did. But a lot of time when we’re talking about the quarterback, we base (our assessment) on decisions made while passing the football," Smith said. "He needs to make better decisions, better throws.”
Illinois has been hurt by injuries at running back. Mike Epstein is out for season with a foot injury and Ra’Von Bonner did not play last week while in concussion protocol. His status for Saturday is uncertain.
Defensively, Illinois has to be on alert for Brohm’s endless bag of trick plays.
“They spread the ball around and they get it to the perimeter pretty well,” defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said. “That’s going to be the challenge – how well we play on those outside running plays and the option read running plays.
“And then they bring a bit of the gadget element to the game with flea flickers and throw-backs.”
Nickerson said that can be an issue for a young defense. “It can be, but that will be one of our points of emphasis. We have to be disciplined and stay with our guys no matter what.”
Purdue has a fairly veteran team and is projected to start three seniors and five juniors on offense and seven seniors and one junior on defense.
The Illini have been starting two seniors and one junior on both offense and defense.
“We’ve seen improvements,” Smith said. “The next step is taking those improvements and finding a way to finish games. Our freshmen are going through everything a young player needs to become a college athlete. But we need to find a way to get over the hump.”