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Watch now: Illinois' defense knows 'what's at stake,' looks to take next step at Purdue
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Watch now: Illinois' defense knows 'what's at stake,' looks to take next step at Purdue

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Purdue Notre Dame Football

Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer has thrown seven touchdown passes this season.

CHAMPAIGN — It wasn't enough.

Illinois had its best defensive performance last week, holding Maryland to 20 points — a season low for an Illini opponent — but the Terrapins still escaped Champaign with a 20-17 victory.

Illinois defensive backs coach Aaron Henry acknowledged that the defense was much better, but he isn't interested in moral victories. He wants to see the team, and specifically his position group, take the next step by playing a complete game, not just "57 great minutes."

The Illini's next opportunity to do that is Saturday afternoon at Purdue, and it will be a formidable task. The Boilermakers rank No. 2 in the Big Ten in passing offense (326.3 yards per game), while Illinois — coming off an improved defensive outing — still ranks last in the conference in passing defense (321.3 yards per game).

"I tell these guys week in and week out, 'If we play bad on the back end, we have no chance to win,'" Henry said. "So going into a game like this, it's clear and evident they're gonna throw the ball. ... And so putting it on the table from the get go and letting guys understand like, 'It ain't no pressure. It's only pressure if you don't prepare right for it.' We know what's at stake."

Purdue is led by junior quarterback Jack Plummer, who is 70-of-97 passing for 745 yards and seven touchdowns with zero interceptions this year. However, he was actually subbed out in the fourth quarter of last week's loss at Notre Dame for fifth-year senior Aidan O'Connell, who won the starting job over Plummer last season. Boilermakers coach Jeff Brohm confirmed during his postgame presser and on Monday that Plummer is still the team's starter.

But Brohm mentioned that both quarterbacks could and likely will take snaps this season. First-year Illini coach Bret Bielema said his team will be prepared for whoever is under center as the Big Ten west rivals duke it out for The Cannon trophy at Ross-Ade Stadium.

The all-time series between the two programs is tied 45-45-6.

"It's never easy to win in this conference. ... That's just the beauty of conference play," Bielema said. "I think the margin for error for us — in the infancy of this coaching staff with this player group — is very, very short, very, very small, however you want to say it. But the good side is there's a lot of things trending in the right direction."

Perhaps two of those trends are redshirt freshmen Tahveon Nicholson and Seth Coleman, who started in place of super seniors Tony Adams Jr. and Isaiah Gay at cornerback and outside linebacker, respectively, last week. Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, Bielema and Henry said they liked what they saw from Coleman, who had a forced and recovered fumble, and Nicholson, who had three tackles.

Henry emphasized that starting roles are earned every day during practice and games, and if a change is made, it's nothing personal.

"At the end of the day, it's not about trying to make people feel good, it's about winning," Henry said. "In the famous words of (former Las Vegas Raiders owner) Al Davis, 'Just win, baby.' We want to win. We don't want to wait 'til like Year Two or Year Three. I hear people say, 'You're almost there.' Forget that, man, we want to win right now and I want to give all the guys ample opportunity to take advantage of that."

One factor that could sway this game significantly is the status of Purdue wide receiver David Bell. The star junior was named First Team All-Big Ten last year and is averaging 106.3 receiving yards per game with three TDs this season. He entered concussion protocol after taking a big hit to the head last week and is a game-time decision, according to Brohm.

The Boilermakers still have four other players who have at least one receiving touchdown this year.

For Illinois, which has lost three straight, quarterback Brandon Peters will try to rebound from a tough performance against Maryland. It was his first game back from a left (non-throwing) shoulder injury he sustained early in the season opener. The sixth-year senior was 10-of-26 passing for 185 yards against one interception.

"Not playing at all for those first three games basically and then being thrown in there, it's not the same," Illini offensive coordinator Tony Petersen said. "It doesn't mean he didn't play well. He played his butt off. He did a lot of really good things, but he knows and I know he could have played at a little bit higher level throughout that game, especially with more reps right there. He's not any different than any other quarterback or any other position. The more reps they get out on the field, the more comfortable they feel and the better they play."


Follow James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid

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