In front of the eyes of the 2001 Rose Bowl Boilermaker football team, as well as thousands of cheering fans in Ross-Ade stadium, Purdue’s offense seemed to do everything it could to hand a win to the Illinois Fighting Illini Saturday afternoon.
Illinois politely declined its offer.
Purdue (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) gave the Illini five straight punts from freshman punter Jack Ansell and two straight interceptions after scoring two close-range field goals on its first two drives. Illinois (1-4, 1-2 Big Ten) still refused to take a victory seemingly within its grasp, countering every given opportunity with a missed scoring chance or a punt of its own.
By the end of the half, both teams had scored nine total points, the lowest combined total since Purdue led Rutgers 7-3 during a 2017 game in Piscataway.
In the end, the same quarterback who threw two picks would end up being the catalyst for a Boilermaker victory. With two bombs and a game sealing pass from fifth-year quarterback Aidan O’Connell, Purdue took a lead it would never relinquish after the defense shut down Illini quarterback Brandon Peters on what would be the final drive of the game.
“We just felt we became one-dimensional,” head coach Jeff Brohm said after the game. “It made it difficult, so we put in O’Connell, who is our most accurate passer when it’s a one dimensional game.”
Three receivers combined for big-time plays on the same drive. Redshirt freshman Abdur Rahmann-Yaseen dove for an 18-yard gain in one of his first receptions as a Boilermaker just three plays before junior receiver Milton Wright saved a potentially-stalled drive with a 17-yard catch of his own.
Sophomore receiver TJ Sheffield capped off the drive with the game’s first touchdown after he spun past multiple Illini defenders and front flipped into the end zone, causing the Ross-Ade fans to fill the stadium with cheers of relief.
In one of its better performances this season, the defense managed to hold an experienced Illini offense to just 9 points, never allowing more than a field goal on 11 Illinois drives. Even on two drives that lasted as many as 13 plays, Purdue’s defense held strong, limiting both to less than 58 yards.
“It was huge for our morale,” junior defensive end George Karlaftis said. “As a defensive player, that’s what you live for.”
Wherever Karlaftis wasn’t, it seemed sophomore safety Marvin Grant and senior linebacker Jaylan Alexander were. The two combined for 14 total tackles on the night, with Grant filling up gaps in the run game, while Alexander logged a pass breakup of his own.
“I look forward to watching (Grant) continue to improve,” Brohm said. “I think he should realize he can be as good as he wants to be.”