Big Ten

Big Ten preview: Will experience lead to success for Illini defense?

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Big Ten preview: Will experience lead to success for Illini defense?

For two consecutive seasons, the Illinois defense has been, statistically, one of the Big Ten’s worst.

In 2013, the Illini allowed 35.4 points per game, ranking 10th out of 12 Big Ten teams. They ranked 11th in total defense, surrendering 481.5 total yards per game. And they were the worst in the conference when it came to stopping the run, allowing 238.6 opposing rushing yards per contest.

Things didn’t get much better last season, either, as the Illini allowed an average of 34 points per game and 456.4 yards of offense per game, ranking last in the league in both categories. Particularly when it came to stopping the run, the Illini, well, couldn’t. They allowed an average of 239.2 rush yards per game last season, not only the worst mark in the Big Ten but the 11th-worst mark in college football. Some of that can be chalked up to facing off against some of the most talented running backs the conference has seen in recent years. Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah, Ezekiel Elliott and David Cobb were all on the Illini’s schedule. Only one of those guys will be in 2015.

The defensive disappointment led Illinois to bring in a new co-defensive coordinator this offseason. Mike Phair has been coaching in the NFL for 13 years and served as an NFL assistant for the past seven seasons. He was most recently assisting Lovie Smith with the Buccaneers after spending three seasons under Smith and Marc Trestman with the Bears. That was after three seasons as an assistant with the Seahawks.

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Who will step up for Illini in Mike Dudek's absence?]

In addition to serving as the Illini’s co-defensive coordinator, Phair will also be coaching the defensive line, which is the first line of defense against the rushing onslaught Illinois had difficulty subduing a season ago.

“I can never speak on the past, I just look at this is a new year," Phair said Sunday at the team's media day in Champaign. "So I just coach what I know and teach the way that I teach it. Just plan on looking at it and trying to get better in all areas. That’s probably the biggest thing I can say is just treating it as a new year and just going from there.

Phair’s impact obviously remains to be seen, and he’ll be working closely with Tim Banks, the other half of this defensive-coordinator tandem. Banks was the team’s sole defensive coordinator the past three seasons under Tim Beckman.

There’s no doubting the Illini defense needs a makeover in some way because what’s been happening the past two seasons hasn’t been working. In the past, Beckman has attributed that lack of success to youth and inexperience, an excuse that isn’t going to fly in his fourth year running the program. And it's not an excuse that anyone's using this preseason. The defense is laden with veterans. Every defensive starter on the team's post-spring depth chart was a junior or senior.

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Does Wes Lunt still have something to prove for Illini?]

That amount of experience has the Illini defense feeling a little different heading into 2015 than it has in years past.

“I think they have a tremendous amount of confidence just because they know what the expectations are," Banks said. "They won’t be in awe in any venue that we play in. These kids have all played. Now, they also understand you’ve got to go out and do it. Having all these guys back is great, but regardless of it, you’ve got to out and execute and you’ve got to show that you can get it done when the lights come on. We’re excited. We’re eager about the challenge. We know it’s right around the corner, and that’s what gets us going every day when we get out of bed. They’re excited.”

“We have a lot of seniors on our defense, so it’s keeping the energy going every day in practice and teaching the younger guys and building off of each other, knowing what success we had last year and where we failed last year," cornerback V'Angelo Bentley said. "It’s going to make us a better defense and ultimately a better team.”

There are stars to be found, most notably Mason Monheim, the senior linebacker who was among the Big Ten’s tackling leaders in 2014. Monheim has 294 career tackles in three seasons with the Illini, ranking second in the FBS among active players. Last season he had 111 tackles with 6.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and one sack. He had six games of double-digit tackles.

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Can Illini's slow-but-steady progress continue?]

In the secondary, Bentley is one of the better all-around players in the conference. He’s a cornerback by trade, though he makes big plays as the Illini’s return man, as well. How about this: He’s the only player in program history to score touchdowns via a kickoff return, punt return, interception return and fumble return. His fumble return touchdown was the game-winning score against Minnesota last season.

And up front on the defensive line, Phair’s department, the coaching staff is excited about Jihad Ward. A former junior-college transfer in his second season with the Illini, he started all 13 games last season and recorded 51 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. His four fumbles recovered were the most in the Big Ten. His 2014 highlight: crushing Northwestern quarterback Zack Oliver for a sack, forcing a fumble and recovering said fumble. Not bad.

“What’s so great is he’s one of the bigger dudes out there with great athleticism, and he’s a great kid," Banks said. "Football is extremely important to him, his teammates are extremely important to him. He’s really worked hard. He was basically like a freshman for us last year, particularly that first half of the season. But when the lights hit that second half of the season, I thought he was one of the better players in this conference. We believe that if he continues to grow and progress, there’s no reason why he can’t be one of the better ones to come through the University of Illinois.”

“You look at the size and the speed and quickness and athletic ability. He’s got big tools," Phair said. "You see tools that are kind of obvious a little bit, but the other part that people that don’t know him (don’t see) is how hard he works, just his mindset. He wants to be good. I would say he’s a motivated guy, so that’s what you love about him. The tools are the obvious part, but he wants to get better.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Comfort breeding confidence as Illini prep for 2015 season]

So the cupboard is hardly bare for this Illini defense. But those three players played well last season, and the team’s defensive numbers were still abysmal. A rapid turnaround is going to take more than three guys playing well.

But this Illini defense has grown up. There's new blood on the coaching staff that has everybody involved excited. And there's potential for the Illinois defense to boast a few of the conference's better defensive players. Will all that translate into a different outcome when it comes to actually stopping teams on the field?

The Illini think so.

“Last season, everybody thought we couldn’t make it to a bowl game. We proved that one wrong," Ward said. "And the fact that we didn’t give up — everybody thought we were going to lose to Penn State and Northwestern. You’ve just got to prove people wrong. I don’t get upset when we hear how we’re ranked and stuff. We’re here to get better.”

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.