Illinois football: Defense setting the tone, soaring to new heights
In a league known for its defensive prowess, Illinois is more than holding its own. They Illini are actually setting the standard for others to chase.
Illinois not only leads the league in total defense, it leads the nation. The Illini find themselves at the top in several categories, including yards allowed per game (221.1), points allowed per game (8.86) and touchdowns allowed (5).
It’s a menacing group, mixed with veterans and newcomers. There’s no superstar, just a bunch of dudes willing to grind. Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters deserves a ton of credit. At 36 years of age, Walters is quickly climbing the ladder as one of the nation’s best young coaches. Teams with head coaching openings will have him on their short lists.
How are they doing it?
Keeping things simple has been a successful tactic. Stopping the run and pressuring the QB. Illinois is strong at all 3 levels, but it starts up front with Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph Jr. The massive duo have combined for 67 tackles and 8 sacks. They’ve been a brick wall and are setting the tone with physical play.
Add outside linebacker Gabe Jacas to the mix. The freshman has added 5 sacks and 22 tackles. He’s providing a fierce pass rush off the edge and has been a problem for opposing offensive lines to block. Walters is doing a fantastic job getting Jacas winnable 1-on-1 matchups.
On the back end, Kendall Smith has 4 INTs, while senior Sydney Brown has 7 pass breakups and 28 tackles.
And we can’t forget about Devon Witherspoon’s 11 pass breakups. He was added this week as a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award. All 3 safeties recorded an INT against Minnesota. Each level is talented and showing out.
— Illinois Football (@IlliniFootball) October 24, 2022
Competition ramps up
Although they’re currently playing lights out defense, it must be said: Tougher tests remain. Starting Saturday on the road against a reputable Nebraska offense. Head coach Bret Bielema talked about it Monday. A tough road environment. Loud crowd. Potent offense. It will be a challenge. Yes, the Illini went on the road to Madison and whipped Wisconsin. Nebraska’s offense presents a tougher task.
Purdue and Michigan also remain. The jury’s still out on how the defense will perform against top-level teams. It’s one thing to shut out Chattanooga, hold Wyoming to 6. Going to the Big House and doing it is another thing.
This will be a defining 5-game stretch. The current frontrunners to capture the West start a “prove-it” journey in Lincoln. It will be the Illini’s first trip to Lincoln since 2018. Win there and momentum builds. Slow down Trey Palmer, Anthony Grant and company, it gets folks’ attention.
Back-to-back home games vs. Michigan State and Purdue follow. Payton Thorne and Aidan O’Connell will test the defense. Illinois closes with a pair of road games — in Ann Arbor and Evanston. It’s looking like a trip to Indy is in the cards. Can the defense lead the charge and close the deal? If they can, they’ll have earned it.
Yes, there’s been some great individual performances. Newton’s 2.5 TFL and constant pressure in a 9-6 win over Iowa stands out. So does Randolph’s 2.5 TFL and a sack and Witherspoon’s 7 tackles and 3 PBUs vs. Virginia.
But overall it’s been a collective effort. A unit that plays together and is having a blast making plays. No one cares who gets the credit as long as the job gets done. Walters is loving every minute of it. And he’s using it out on the recruiting trail as a pitch to potential future defenders.
“We’ve been telling recruits all the way back to last year what was going to happen,” Walters told reporters this week. “Now that it’s out there, and you can see proof, it definitely helps on the recruiting trail. This isn’t a surprise to anybody in the building.”
Maybe not. But there are likely still plenty of doubters outside the program. Some say the schedule’s been soft. They haven’t faced a legit offense. Questions remain.
Whatever the case, Illinois has a chance to silence any naysayers. It starts Saturday in Lincoln off a bye week. If the first 7 games are any indication, Walters will have his unit prepped and up for the challenge.