Despite record, Illinois is showing some promising signs defensively
You probably didn’t believe him.
Based on what we’ve seen out of Champaign in the past, you probably scratched your head and raised your eyebrow when Mike Riley said that Illinois had one of the top defensive lines around.
“Their defensive front is the best one that we will face so far,” Riley said. “They have two defensive ends that are good, they have defensive tackles that are good. Their front will be tough.”
That front is comprised of four seniors, Dawuane Smoot, Chunky Clements, Gimel President and Carroll Phillips, and has been dominant for most of the year. They’ve combined for 20.5 of the team’s 37 tackles for loss. Though Smoot has yet to record a sack this year, the remaining trio have tallied 8.5 sacks.
But what could they do against a balanced B1G offense? They were likely to stoop back into their old ways and get steamrolled by an offense that has become one of the most efficient units in the conference.
Riley was right. The defensive is tough. And they were good last weekend, too.
Last Saturday, Illinois held Nebraska to 10 points and 89 rushing yards through the first three quarters. The Illini tallied 5.0 tackles for loss, with Smoot accounting for 1.5. After the game, defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson praised the way his group played for most of the contest.
“For the most part, we were pretty solid in the run game. The exception was that one run at the end that kind of threw everything out of whack,” Nickerson said. “We were giving up 2.9 yards per carry until then, which is pretty good.”
Go back and watch Illinois’ defense for three quarters in that game. Nebraska couldn’t run between the hashes for most of the afternoon. Chunky Clements and Dawaune Smoot were getting a strong push against the offensive line through most of the game. Against one of the most balanced and unpredictable offenses in the B1G, the Illini were holding the Huskers to just 140 yards on the ground midway through the fourth quarter, more than 100 yards below their average.
And then Newby broke free for a 63-yard run to the end zone. Just like three weeks earlier when Elijah Hood sprinted 62 yards in the fourth quarter to give North Carolina a 45-23 advantage and seal the win. Until that time, the Tar Heels only earned 122 rushing yards.
Fourth quarters have been detrimental for Illinois through four games this season. For 45 minutes each game, the Illini have been superb at defending the run, only to surrender big plays and mass yardage in the final period.
How good have they been?
The Illini have surrendered 677 yards on the ground this season. Of that total, 280 of those rushing yards have come in the fourth quarter. That’s right, 41 percent of the opponent’s rushing totals have come in the final fifteen minutes. If you just look at quarters one through three, they’re allowing 99.3 yards per contest.
So, why the numbers may not look much different than they did over the past few seasons, there’s certainly some progress that’s being made. This isn’t a team that’s being eviscerated on the ground. Opponents aren’t running the football quite as freely as they have before. Though it hasn’t translated to wins, it’s a good sign so early into the Smith era.
It all depends on perspective.
You could say that Illinois has been a few plays away from an entirely different season. Or, you could say that the Illini can’t close. Whatever your viewpoint, you can’t deny the defense is looking better – a lot better – under Smith. Most of that praise should go to the senior-laden front.
The Illini have been really good at the line of scrimmage. They’ve clogged the middle of the field, making it difficult for teams to run between the tackles, at least for a majority of the game. They’ve disrupted the backfield frequently and have become proficient at pursuing the quarterback.
Against North Carolina, they trampled the offensive line in the second quarter, brought down the running back and recorded a safety to close a 24-14 deficit into a one-possession game.
On a 3rd-and-long late in the third quarter against Nebraska, the Illini were able to break through the Huskers offensive line and Clements did an incredible job chasing down Tommy Armstrong, Jr. from across the field. His speed and effort to catch and bring down the quarterback was praised by many as the type of play that would be seen on Sunday afternoons.
Unfortunately on that play the senior defensive tackle got caught with his hands too high and was flagged for a horse-collar that kept the Nebraska drive alive. A pass interference penalty on fourth down later in that possession aided a Husker touchdown that gave them a 17-16 lead.
Those type of mistakes have been critical against the Illini. In the fourth quarter, Illinois has made some costly mistakes that have been the difference between 1-3 and potentially 3-1. Did I mention those 60-plus yard runs given up in the final period?
Sure, those problems are frustrating, but progress is being made.
Nobody expected for Smith to come in, snap his fingers and instantly turn Illinois into a power. He was an excellent hire for the program, but he’s not a magician. He can’t just start pulling wins out of a hat.
He’s taken care of what he can control. That’s been utilizing the talent his team has. Smith has combined his 22 years of NFL experience – 11 as a head coach, 11 as a defensive assistant in several capacities – with an NFL-studded defensive line and has developed a unit that can efficiently stop the run.
When Illinois is able to correct some of those late game-lapses, more tallies will start to add up in the ‘W’ column. The Illini defense has dramatically improved on what we’ve seen in the recent past, even if they are only 1-3 on the year.
At least teams are running away with wins anymore.