Defense gets back to basics: It had fun

By Kyle Betts

Who would you give the game ball to after Illinois’ 45-20 beat down (yeah, I think it’s safe to call it that at this point) of Michigan on Saturday?

Would it be the guy who amassed Playstation-like numbers of 431 yards of offense out of the team’s total 501 yards? Would it be the guy who collected four total touchdowns? Would it be the guy who jumped into the warm embrace of a mob of orange fans that took over Michigan Stadium after the game?

While junior quarterback Juice Williams met all these qualifications en route to perhaps his most balanced and impressive game ever in an Illini uniform, the entire defensive unit deserves to be rewarded simply for having some fun.

After the game, every defensive player was all smiles talking to the media. Something I haven’t seen yet this season.

“It was fun playing defense today,” sophomore linebacker Martez Wilson said, grinning from ear to ear.

I think I speak for Illini fans everywhere when I say that it was fun watching, too.

The defense shut down Michigan’s running game by holding them to 69 yards rushing (about half of what they have been averaging all season) and attacked Michigan quarterback Steven Threet with aggressive blitzes all day.

“Our guys took a little step today in just growing up, particularly on the defensive side of the ball,” head coach Ron Zook said, obviously pleased with his defense’s dominant performance against the Wolverines. I even think I saw him smile.

Led by senior linebacker Brit Miller (nine tackles and two sacks), who played like a Tasmanian devil hopped up on Red Bull and double espresso shots, the defense shut down a Michigan offense in transition and suffocated the crowd of 109,705 at the Big House into utter silence.

“I think Brit probably played his best game today,” sophomore defensive lineman Josh Brent said. “He’s received a lot of flak for missing tackles here and missing tackles there. But I’d rather him be too aggressive rather than passive.”

Even though the Illini defense was solid throughout the game, the Wolverines dominated the first quarter, scoring 14 points and seemingly moving the ball at will toward the end zone.

After the first quarter, however, Michigan was held to only six total points for the rest of the game.

So what was the turning point? When was the moment the Illini defense decided to wake up?

“Dana Howard touched me man,” Miller said, crediting the former Illini great with giving him tackling advice at the end of the first quarter. “I missed a huge tackle on the punt. I was trying to really time it up so I could put a huge lick on him. He came up to me a couple plays later and he tapped me on the shoulder.”

While I’m not ready to anoint Howard as having some kind of Midas Touch that allows him to spread defensive knowledge to whomever he comes in contact with, but there was certainly a turning point near the end of the first quarter.

Brent said he thought the team came out emotionally jacked up, but they didn’t start playing sound football until after the first few Michigan drives.

“You want to go out there and play emotionally but play fundamentally strong at the same time,” Brent said. “We played with a little bit more emotion and gained confidence in ourselves.”

From a spectator’s viewpoint, though, the defense didn’t really start dominating until third quarter, which was when Michigan scored zero points and had -1 yard of offense. While playing strong defense in the third is nothing new for the Illini– – they have allowed only 17 points in the third quarter all season – the way in which they took the Wolverines’ offense out of the game was … well, exciting.

“In the second half there was more excitement,” junior cornerback Vontae Davis said, smiling while sitting back in his chair after the game.

Davis also said he hadn’t felt the defense playing with this kind of confidence and energy yet this season – a thought echoed by many of his teammates.

While the excitement emanating from the players was clear after the huge win, the hot word on all those smiling faces was “fun”. And as an opposing offensive player, the last thing you want to hear is about how the other team’s defense is having fun. That’s a very good thing for the Illini and a defensive unit that came into the season as the strength of this team.

Maybe the dominance at Ann Arbor can be attributed to the Illini facing a team that runs an offense similar to their own, an idea rejected by players and coaches alike, but hopefully this is the start of more fun to come.

“The first thing I heard our of Brit’s mouth in the locker room was, ‘This is just the beginning defense,'” Zook said. “That’s what you want.”

Kyle Betts is a graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]