With an improbable 20-14 win over Wisconsin on Nov. 4, bowl eligibility remains a possibility for Indiana football. Despite starting the season 2-6 and dropping their first five conference matchups, the Hoosiers can sneak into a bowl by winning their final three games.
The first of the remaining contests comes against Illinois at noon Saturday in Champaign, Illinois. The Illini — 4-5 overall, 2-4 in the Big Ten — are coming off a 27-26 victory over Minnesota led by a 13 catch, 131 yard and two touchdown effort from junior receiver Isaiah Williams.
After steadily improving over the last two games, Indiana looks to take its momentum into a high-stakes road clash. Here’s three things to look out for when the Hoosiers take on the Illini:
Illinois’ starting quarterback
Illini sophomore quarterback Luke Altmyer has been lethal with both his arm and his legs. Against Minnesota, he tossed three touchdowns, two of which came in the first quarter, before exiting the game in the fourth quarter with an undisclosed injury.
Illinois head coach Bret Bielema said Altmyer’s injury was lingering Monday and he has yet to be medically cleared to play. Altmyer’s backup, senior John Paddock, went 3-for-3 with 85 yards and a game-winning touchdown pass late in the Minnesota game.
Still, Altmyer — who’s rushed for 282 yards and three scores this season — presents a vastly different skillset than the more stationary Paddock.
“He’s hurt a lot of guys, a lot of teams, with his legs,” Indiana head coach Tom Allen said of Altmyer in a press conference Thursday morning. “There will be some quarterback designed runs. Keeping him contained is going to be a big key thing for us.”
Bielema said he would be comfortable starting Altmyer if he can be cleared Saturday morning prior to the game, but there is currently a question mark surrounding Illinois’ quarterback spot.
The Hoosiers’ run game against a stout Illini defensive line
Indiana has been among the worst rushing offenses in the Big Ten this season. Through nine games, the Hoosiers rank third to last in yards per game with 105.7, and second to last in yards per carry with 3.1.
Against Wisconsin, Indiana managed just 75 yards on the ground from four separate ball carriers. Senior Josh Henderson led the way with 40 yards on 15 attempts. While Illinois’ rushing defense pales in comparison to that of last season, it still boasts a talented defensive line led by star junior defensive tackle Jer’Zhan Newton.
Newton has posted 5.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks so far this season, and he’s steadily been shooting up NFL draft boards. Illinois’ run defense has been returning to impressive form recently, surrendering less than 100 yards on the ground in two of the last three outings, and Newton is a major reason why.
“They have a (defensive) tackle that’s probably as good as we’ve faced,” offensive coordinator Rod Carey said of Newton on Monday afternoon. “It’s a good defense and it’s predicated on not letting you run the ball.”
Can Indiana’s receivers capitalize on a struggling Illinois secondary?
Especially late in games, the back end of Illinois’ defense has been prone to miscues. Before being drafted No. 5 overall to the Seattle Seahawks in April, Devon Witherspoon starred as a cornerback with the Illini.
This season, it appears they’ve struggled in his absence. Illinois has conceded the most passing touchdowns in the conference with 16, and it allows the third-most passing yards per game with just over 227.
While redshirt freshman quarterback Brendan Sorsby and Indiana’s passing attack haven’t been consistently explosive, they’ve flashed more and more over the past few games. Junior and senior wideouts Donaven McCulley and E.J. Williams have played significant roles in that development.
Williams dislocated his thumb and sat for an extended period of time, but his four catch, 48-yard performance against Wisconsin showed some of the speed and drive-extending abilities he offers.
“Because of the time he missed, his body’s rested and he’s ready to go,” Carey said of Williams. “He’s playing at a good speed right now and his confidence is growing.”
McCulley, who hauled in five catches for 69 yards and a touchdown against the Badgers, has appeared to step up in the absence of senior Cam Camper, who will miss the rest of the season after undergoing a procedure related to his ACL injury last year.
With Sorsby finding his groove as the starter, and McCulley and Williams taking on enhanced roles, Indiana’s passing game has considerable upside. It will be crucial for them to attack a lackluster Illini secondary on Saturday.