Defensive Progress Lost in the Shadow

By Derek Barichello

Overshadowed by 34 points and 403 yards, the Illini defense came away from Saturday’s game with three turnovers (one on an interception and two on fumbles), two sacks and a new identity, attacking the other team.

When Ron Zook was hired, he said it was one of his goals to turn the Illini into a speed defense that attacked the ball and created turnovers from a cover-two base.

On Saturday, defensive coordinator Mike Mallory said the defense made it a point to blitz early and often.

“They’ve shown that their quarterback is very capable,” Mallory said. “We wanted to get after him. We wanted to not let him get comfortable. We wanted to keep him on the edge and we were able to do that a little bit today.”

Linebacker J Leman said the blitzing paid off.

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“It caused some turnovers,” Leman said. “There were a lot of good things that we can build on that I think got overshadowed by what’s on the scoreboard.”

One of the turnovers the defensive aggressiveness caused was a fumble by Blake Powers. Deep in Indiana territory, the Illini came with a blitz package that allowed linebacker Remond Willis to come through untouched and hit Powers, causing him to lose the ball. The fumble recovery gave the Illini the football at the six-yard line and led to their only touchdown of the game.

“We always work on blitzes,” Leman said. “Today we were able to hit them home. We were able to get some tackles for losses and some sacks.”

He said Saturday’s aggressiveness was just a glimpse of what the Illini are working on becoming.

“Turnovers are the biggest part of what we want to do here,” Leman said. “We emphasize getting to the ball, not dropping the ball when it’s thrown to one of us.”

Leman said creating turnovers starts with blitzing and getting pressure on the quarterback.

“Once you are able to get to him, you can make him feel uncomfortable,” he said. “That is when the quarterback ends up throwing the ball over the place.”

The Illini have not been able to get pressure on the quarterback in previous games, recording only six sacks and six turnovers through five games heading into last Saturday.

Mallory said Saturday was not so much a change in identity as much as a change in attitude.

“We’re on the right course,” Mallory said. “Identity is not based on a play call, it is based on the passion and energy you bring to the field. You have to have fun playing the game and lay it on the line.”

Although the Illini made progress, Mallory said they have to keep working at playing with the same passion in every game.

“We’re going to go back and watch some tape,” Mallory said. “And keep working on the fundamentals.”