Illini defense strong in Big Ten opener

By Courtney Linehan

One year ago, Illinois’ offense seemed to be clicking; it was the defense that needed a boost.

When the Illini opened the Big Ten season against No. 14 Iowa on Saturday, the opposite seemed to be true. Illinois’ defense fought to contain an impressive Iowa offensive effort, and kept the Hawkeyes at bay through much of the game.

“We held our own, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do,’ junior safety Kevin Mitchell said. “We’re going to improve every game and stick together.”

Illinois’ defense held Iowa scoreless until 5:55 before halftime, the longest opponent scoreless span since Ron Zook became head coach. Over the next five minutes Illinois allowed three touchdowns, but Iowa logged just 39 yards rushing before the halftime horn sounded.

Iowa scored just once in the second half, on a fourth-quarter 45-yard field goal.

“I thought the defense continued to improve, they continue to get better,” Zook said. “We had a couple series where we let down, but that’s a pretty good offensive football team, but I think we continued to fight, continued to battle.”

Illinois’ defensive players recorded 40 solo tackles – including six each from Mitchell, J Leman and Alan Ball – while Iowa’s athletes only totaled 29. Mitchell led Illinois’ effort, assisting on four tackles and recording his first career sack and his first interception.

“People are in the right spots now. I was looking at tape of Iowa last year when we played them, and we were in positions that we were definitely not supposed to be in,” Mitchell said. “It’s improvement because we know what we’re doing, but it’s confidence too.”

FANDAMONIUM

Iowa fans turned out in droves for the Big Ten opener, joining Illinois tailgates and threading the stands with yellow and black.

Still, Zook said he was happy with the way Illini fans stuck around to support their team.

“I saw a lot of orange, and I was really happy and proud,” Zook said. “It won’t be long, when this thing gets going like it’s going to, the Hawkeye fans will have trouble getting tickets.”

INJURY REPORT

Corner Alan Ball was hurt during the game, but got back in . Offensive lineman Akim Millington hurt his ankle and had to be carted off the field . Derek Walker sprained his shoulder and should miss a few days of practice, despite trying to head back into the game in the second half.

QUOTE OF THE GAME

“Ever since he told me, this rush of nerves fell over me. I felt this pressure to please everyone; I didn’t want to let anyone down. It kind of messed with my brain a little bit.”

– Juice Williams on finding out he would be starting at quarterback