CHAMPAIGN — The last two seasons, the Illinois defense has been just about as bad as a defense can be.
But there’s something different about this defense in 2015.
And that difference was no better evidenced than during Saturday’s 14-13 win over Nebraska. Linebacker Mason Monheim called it the best defensive game the Illini have had since he’s been on the team.
Illinois held Nebraska — which entered the week averaging 519.5 yards per game — to a season-low 292 yards. The Illini shut down quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who entered the week as the Big Ten’s leading passer. Armstrong completed just 10 of his 31 passing attempts for 105 yards, throwing no touchdown passes and one interception.
“The defense was unbelievable,” interim head coach Bill Cubit said after the game. “This is the first time since I’ve been here that the defensive line looks like a Big Ten defensive line. We’re playing pretty well up front. And I think our linebackers are doing a good job back there. But our secondary — (Nebraska) tested us. Some good things happened, but we covered pretty well there. (Armstrong) was 10-of-31, and he’s the leading passer in the Big Ten.
“Without a doubt, if we don’t have the defense (play the way it did), we’re not sitting here talking like we are now.”
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The defense made stop after stop after stop against Nebraska, allowing the Illinois offense the opportunity to get back in the game — even if that unit waited till the fourth quarter to capitalize. But the Illini defense forced the Huskers into six three-and-outs.
After a strange series of events in the early third quarter that featured the Illini confused by down markers and ending up unwittingly turning the ball over on downs, the defense responded in a major way, suffocating Armstrong on the ensuing series and intercepting one of his passes.
And impressively, the defense bent but didn’t break on a key drive in the third quarter. After the Huskers pinned the Illini at their own one-yard line with a punt, the Illini quickly punted back, and a bad kick set the Huskers up at the Illini’s 31-yard line. But Nebraska came away with just a field goal.
The Illinois defense kept the team in the game as late as the game’s most important drive, forcing back-to-back incompletions on bizarre pass plays with the clock ticking down, the second forcing a turnover on downs and giving the ball back to the Illini with 51 seconds left. The Illini offense went down the field and scored to take a one-point lead with 10 seconds left, the game-winning drive set up by the defense.
All those key moments, fueled by a new feeling among the defense, a feeling of experience. For the last few seasons, youth has been used as an excuse for the defense’s poor play. Well this is now a veteran unit, and one that’s no longer playing poorly.
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“Going down there, they’re in a short field. We hold them to a field goal or stop them on fourth down. We’re so much older, and I think you can see that in our play to where we don’t get rattled,” Monheim said. “We go out there, it’s a new play, it’s a new series, doesn’t matter. I’m just proud of all of us, the way we fought today.”
“We’ve made gains both physically and mentally, but the biggest thing is experience,” said defensive back Clayton Fejedelem, who was the defender to intercept Armstrong. “So the mental aspect and communication in this has been key.”
And where in the past it’s been a couple of playmakers that have stuck out on that side of the ball — Monheim, defensive end Jihad Ward, cornerback V’Angelo Bentley — while the unit as a whole has struggled, it’s now everyone playing well. With the exception of a blowout loss at North Carolina, a game where the defense was gassed by the offense putting it back on the field, the Illinois defense has been consistently great. Entering play Saturday, the Illini were one of the nation’s top 25 teams in total defense.
After shutting down Armstrong and the Huskers, that ranking could go up.
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“Playing a dual-threat quarterback is always a challenge. Armstrong is probably one of the best in the country at what he does. Having opportunity to keep those guys contained for the most part was priority No. 1,” co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “We felt like we did that at the quarterback spot. I thought our secondary did a great job of covering guys, staying on top of routes, while our front applied pressure. It was a collective effort. I can’t say it was all front or all secondary, linebackers. Everybody did their job, and when you’re doing that, you’ve got a chance to be successful.”
Most importantly, the Illinois defense fueled a win that puts the Illini at 1-0 in conference play. It was the program’s first win in a Big Ten opener since 2011.
Can the Illini make some noise in the Big Ten West as the season marches on? Well, when it comes to making noise, they’re 1-for-1.
“It allows us to really feel out where we’re at in the Big Ten,” Fejedelem said. “So that’s huge. It’s a confidence-builder.”