Big Ten

Grown-up Illini defense shines in powering comeback win

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Grown-up Illini defense shines in powering comeback win

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.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Illini come back in final seconds to stun Huskers]

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.

[MORE BIG TEN: Why does this keep happening to Huskers?]

“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.

[MORE BIG TEN: Northwestern moves to 5-0 with dominant win over Gophers]

“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.”

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.