With Saturday’s convincing victory over Indiana, the Fighting Illini football team is now off to a 6-0 start, ranked No. 16 in the country, and have made it known that they are for real this year.
It’s really no surprise that the Illini offense has been able to put up some pretty solid numbers thus far. They were expected to be able to move the ball and score some points with the return of sophomore QB Nathan Scheelhaase, senior wide out A.J. Jenkins, a solid group of backs, and an experienced offensive line.
However, on the defensive side of the ball there was definitely some cause for concern. The Illini lost All-Big 10 performers Martez Wilson and Corey Liuget as well as starters Nate Bussey and Clay Nurse, who were both big contributors last year.
So heading into this season the big question being posed by many fans and critics was this: how are the Illini going to stop anybody?
Well, to this point in the season the Illini defense has silenced those people by answering that very question—and in very impressive fashion I might add.
Let me throw some quick numbers at you:
Currently the Illini defense ranks 17th in the nation in points per game, allowing only 17.8 points. They also rank 15th in the nation in total defense, giving up only 296.7 yards per game, which includes allowing only 79.7 yards per game on the ground – good for 9th in the nation.
In addition to that, with their five sacks on Saturday against Indiana, the Illini now rank 1st—yes that’s first—in the nation with 22 sacks and are averaging 3.67 sacks per game, which puts them at 6th in the country.
Pessimists will tell you that these numbers are skewed because Illinois hasn’t played great competition thus far. Say what they will; the bottom line is they are getting the job done.
Coming into the season there were a lot of question marks on this Illini defense, but they are starting to make a name for themselves and here are a few of the reasons why.
As the mastermind behind the defensive revival in Champaign, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning definitely deserves some credit for the defense's success this season.
This is Koenning’s second season calling the shots on the defensive side of the ball for the Illini and to say he has done a great job is a bit of an understatement.
Last year he orchestrated a complete turnaround from the previous season as the Illini improved 53 spots in total defense and 48 spots in scoring defense. This season he has picked up where he left off as the Illini continue to impress despite the losses of several key players.
Honestly, outside of linebacker Ian Thomas, the front seven of the Illinois defense came into the season with a lot of unknowns.
However, Koenning surprised some people prior to the season by stating that he felt this defense actually had a chance to be better than last year’s group, and so far he looks like a genius.
By mixing up fronts, disguising blitzes, and moving guys all over the place, Koenning has found ways for the defense to create havoc and the front seven has displayed talent that nobody knew they had.
At the mid-point of the season, he has his boys playing as well as any defense in the Big 10.
I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that the hiring of Koenning last year was a good move by Ron Zook.
When Martez Wilson decided to leave early for the NFL, it gave Ian Thomas the opportunity to slide into the middle linebacker position from his former weakside position and so far he hasn’t missed a beat.
He is a three year starter at linebacker, who led the team in tackles as a sophomore, and has the most experience of anyone on the defense.
Thomas is currently second on the team in tackles and has been a steady presence in the middle of the Illini defense all season—exactly what a senior middle linebacker should be.
He is no doubt the leader of the defense and will have to continue to provide that leadership for his more inexperienced teammates as the Illini play the second half of the season against some tougher competition.
After losing Corey Liuget and Clay Nurse the Illinois defensive line was a huge question mark coming into this season, but so far they’ve arguably been the strength of the squad.
They have shown the ability to get to the quarterback and defensive ends Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan have a lot to do with that.
Both Mercilus and Buchanan are juniors who saw playing time as sophomores and flashed potential at times, but no one imagined they would be performing at the level they are right now.
Mercilus has 8.5 sacks, which is among the top in the nation, while Buchanan has added 4.5 sacks from the other end position. That’s a pretty solid tandem.
If they can continue at this pace for the rest of the season, Illinois is in good shape.
Outside of his mental lapse last week where he took a cheap shot at a Northwestern lineman, Brown has been one of the pleasant surprises of the Illini defense thus far.
That cheap shot landed him a one game suspension, which he served on Saturday by missing the Indiana game.
Obviously the Illini defense managed just fine without him, but going forward they are going to need him back on the field.
When he has been on field, Brown has been all over the place. He is third on the team, behind only Mercilus and Buchanan, in tackles for loss and sacks from his linebacker position.
He is just one of those guys that makes plays on defense and is always around the ball – in other words, he’s a difference maker.
The return of cornerbacks Tavan Wilson and Terry Hawthorne gave the Illini one of the better duos in the Big Ten coming into this season.
Wilson actually leads the team in tackles and has made some big plays this year, including the fumble recovery and 66-yard touchdown scamper against Indiana on Saturday—that was a game changer for the Illini.
On the other side, Hawthorne is one of the better, if not the best, athletes on the team.
Originally recruited as a highly touted receiver out of East St. Louis, Hawthorne made a smooth transition to the corner position as a freshman and has never looked back.