Illini lose again as home favorite, can almost kiss West title goodbye

There’s a lot that could still happen, but the Illini aren’t likely to be the last ones standing. And they will rue Saturday’s defeat as surely as they will the 23-15 letdown against Michigan State that preceded it.

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Purdue v Illinois

Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito scrambles to the sideline against Purdue.

Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

CHAMPAIGN — Had to have it.

Didn’t get it.

Illinois’ 31-24 loss to Purdue — the Illini’s second straight stumble at home as a favorite — dealt a staggering blow to hopes that an orange-and-blue engine-that-could was headed for a Big Ten West championship and the conference title game in Indianapolis.

Purdue (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten) now holds a tiebreaker edge over Illinois (7-3, 4-3) in addition to having a far more favorable schedule. The Boilermakers have Northwestern and Indiana left. The Illini also have Northwestern, but first comes a daunting trip to mighty Michigan. Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota all were 3-3 and in the division hunt entering Saturday’s games.

There’s a lot that could still happen, but the Illini aren’t likely to be the last ones standing. And they will rue Saturday’s defeat — a nearly four-hour parade of penalties and missed opportunities — as surely as they will the 23-15 letdown against Michigan State that preceded it.

Illini coach Bret Bielema called it a day of “flashbacks” to the week before.

“If we have a momentum swing or do something good,” he said, “then we have something that sets us back.”

Maybe this better-than-average, but far from elite, Illini team — deservedly about to drop out of any and all Top 25s — simply flew too close to the sun. But now we’re mixing train and plane metaphors, and no good can possibly come of that.

“The good news is [we’ve] done a lot of good things,” Bielema said. “The tough news is we didn’t do enough the last two weeks to let this get to where it is today. Obv it’s a race that’s nowhere close to being done, but I think the only thing we can worry about now is getting Illinois football good at Illinois football.”

If anybody’s going to be good at Illinois football, it might as well be the Illini. It would help if they didn’t commit 12 penalties for 121 yards in a game ever again. Seven of the flags gave Purdue first downs, an egregious number.

The Illini led 7-0 and 14-7 but were undone by all that dirty laundry. Probably the most painful penalty was the pass-interference call on cornerback Devon Witherspoon late in the first half that negated his interception. The Boilermakers scored a touchdown, with quarterback Aidan O’Connell finding Charlie Jones — a Stevenson alum to a Deerfield alum — on the next play to tie the game.

It appeared to be a terrible call — from the same officiating crew that left the Illini steaming in an early-season loss at Indiana — and prompted Bielema to walk 50 yards with the captain of the crew at halftime, barking at him the whole way. Bielema waited for the same official after coming onto the field for the start of the second half and barked at him some more.

In the second half, though, the Illini committed 50 yards of penalties on a single Purdue touchdown drive. Once you’ve done that, you can’t really complain about getting a raw deal.

“You’re just not going to survive major-college football and Big Ten play with those kind of numbers working against you,” Bielema said.

It was Purdue’s sixth straight win at Memorial Stadium and its 14th win in the last 18 games between the schools. There has been a lot of frustrated grumbling from Boilers fans this season, but things suddenly are looking seriously up.

“We’re not blind to these things,” O’Connell said. “We know we’re bowl-eligible. We know we’re still in the hunt.”

The Boilermakers hang on to the Cannon rivalry trophy, theirs after six of the last seven meetings with Illinois. The Illini hang on to scant hope of winning the West for the first time — and likely hang their heads a bit.

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