Viewers get what they want

By BobLa Gesse

While the Illinois offense entertained the 46,106 people in Memorial Stadium with its big play antics, what everyone watched as intently as the “Friends” series finale was the defense – and unlike the finale, the defense didn’t disappoint.

The defense looked like the vintage Kevin Hardy and Simeon Rice units of the mid-90s that not only didn’t allow points, but also didn’t let teams move the ball an inch.

The starters kept Florida A&M; off the scoreboard. There were big hits, three-and-outs, sacks and turnovers. Asking if that performance was a welcome sight to fans is like asking if a campus party has a keg. Everyone knows the response.

The best news for the defense came in the secondary. Seniors, cornerback Kelvin Hayden and safety Morris Virgil, looked at-home in their first game at their new positions. And they made their presence known.

Hayden looked more like a receiver than a cornerback. He had two interceptions, more than the Illini had all of last year. One was for a touchdown and the other occurred after Hayden had to stop time to reposition himself to get a chance to catch the ball that had been tipped by a Rattler wide receiver.

“It felt pretty good to have the ball back in my hands,” Hayden said.

Virgil didn’t make the glory plays like Hayden but he consistently found his way to the ball every play and ended the game with eight tackles.

Uh-oh, boys and girls, the “Pee-wee Playhouse” word of the day: tackle.

The biggest problem for the defensive unit no longer looks to be that big of a problem.

But was everything perfect for the defense? No.

The IlliniRowdies felt they were reliving last year as Florida A&M; moved the ball down the field with ease on its first possession. If the Rattlers had scored, Memorial Stadium might have turned into something close to a European soccer riot.

But what did Illinois really learn by beating the snot out of a team of Florida and Florida State rejects?

“We learned we are still a work-in progress,” Turner said. “I think we’re going to get better. I think we have more athleticism and we have a chance to be a pretty good defense.”

At this point in the year every team is a work in progress. Big Ten favorite Michigan struggled through the first half in its opening game victory. LSU would have lost if Oregon State’s kicker – by now ex-kicker – didn’t miss three extra point attempts. While other teams found what they lacked in, the Illini rediscovered two positives: the big play on defense and winning.

Both weren’t taken out of the playbook last year. The players just needed to find them.

“A win is a win,” said senior defensive end Mike O’Brien. “If we win by three or 50. You’re going to have to win to get momentum.”

The entire team sounded like O’Brien after the game. They were just glad to finally get a win and now they look to build on it. Mike Mallory’s defensive unit can do that just that as long as the Illini keep UCLA from putting up Pac-10-like offensive numbers.

In reality, the defense does not need to do what they did Saturday in every game. And they may not do it again this year, but as Stuart Smalley says, “That’s ok.”

The offense can score more points than one could playing “EA Sports College Football 2005.” Every time it steps on the field it can put up 50 points. As long as the defense doesn’t let every game turn into one where the crowd knows the last team with the ball will win, the Illini will have the chance to be successful.

A few key stops on third down or a turnover – like the Illini did against Florida A&M; – and the opposition will not be able to play catch up with the Illini offense. The defense just needs to learn if it can do that week after week.

So stay tuned.

Bobby La Gesse is a senior in communications. He can be reached at [email protected]