Illini defense showing signs of maturity

By Ashley Johnson

It is his least favorite part of practice, but for linebacker Brit Miller, the tedious part of weekly preparation gave Illinois an early touchdown – and an edge to defense that had fluctuated in weeks past.

“We go through every day and it’s the most boring mundane, like, worst part of practice,” the Decatur, Ill., native said, “but it’s ripping the ball out.”

During a Louisiana-Lafayette third and two on the team’s second drive, senior quarterback Michael Desormeaux scrambled up the middle, only to be met by Miller’s boring practice skills.

“That’s where it pays off, because I just had got my hands on the ball for a tackle,” Miller said. “We ended up standing him up, we had a lot of guys around him, and I was able to get (the ball) out.”

About now is when a slight panic set in for the senior. But rather than concede the play, he ran for 27 yards, hoping the officials wouldn’t stop him.

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“I was afraid they were going to blow (the play) dead, for forward progress,” he said. “So I showed the ball when I was running and then put it back away. It’s just a good feeling to get back in the end zone.”

Getting back in the end zone was something of an acrobatic affair for Miller, though, doing a half-somersault, half-exhausted roll into the north end zone. And while he may have had visions of former Illini gymnast Justin Spring, another alumni had other sentiments.

“I got a text message from (former Illini receiver) Kyle Hudson that says, ‘That’s a weak dive, man,'” Miller said, doing his best to imitate the Aberdeen IronBirds outfielder.

“It wasn’t a dive,” Miller said with a defensive laugh. “I got tripped.”

The defensive momentum created by the play more or less held until the fourth quarter. On the second drive of the final quarter, Desormeaux showed why Illinois coaches didn’t speak lightly of the Ragin’ Cajun quarterback. The signal caller engineered two scoring drives, one with his arm and another with his feet. His 34-yard run brought Louisiana-Lafayette to within seven points, after trailing 17-3 for a considerable part of the game. Another Desormeaux-orchestrated score, mostly through the air, made the score an uncomfortable 20-17.

Although the score would stand, giving No. 24 Illinois its second win, the defense still wanted more out of itself. The unit was more than happy to shut down the running tandem of Desormeaux and running back Tyrell Fenroy, limiting the two to a combined 117 yards rushing. But it still would have liked to clamp down and secure the win for the Illini offense when it was struggling, as the offense had done for the defense earlier this season.

“You don’t foresee it happening, these past couple weeks. I would agree with the fact that the defense didn’t have our energy up where it needed to be, but today it was,” defensive tackle David Lindquist said. “It one of those things, it’s the ebbs and flows, and week in and week out we have to keep (our energy) on a steady rise throughout the game.”

Lindquist continued.

“It’s great to know that we played a solid defensive game, but the truth is, we need to finish,” he said. “We can’t let them get those points at the end and make it close. Because bottom line, if you’re a great defense you play 60 minutes … we would have felt better if we would have held them to three points, because that’s what we should have done.”

And while Lindquist may have been understandably critical of his defensive efforts, the unit managed to perform at a time when Illinois needed it the most.

The week leading up the game was riddled with questions about the team’s ability to stop the run – and offenses in general. While Louisiana-Lafayette may not have the marquee-talent of Missouri, it still had the ability to make big plays, which had plagued Illinois against the Tigers and to a lesser extent against Eastern Illinois.

And, if the Illini defense didn’t play the way it did for 60 minutes, if it didn’t force two fumbles on the Ragin’ Cajuns’ first two drives, if Miller wasn’t a border-line kleptomaniac, if it didn’t record 11 tackles for loss, a big play or two likely enters the mix and potentially gives Louisiana-Lafayette more points – or the game.

As it was, the Illinois defense surrendered 107 of the Ragin’ Cajuns 287 total yards in the fourth quarter, which translated to eight of their 19 total first downs.

So, for the time being at least, the defense will work this week and next. Its two newest additions to the line, Josh Brent and Corey Liguet – a player Lindquist is excited to see more of – will be worked in more with the defensive line to build upon the improvements the defense made Saturday.

It won’t be glamorous, or publicized. It will be tedious and monotonous.

But, ultimately, when Illinois does travel to the 100,000-person White Out against Penn State in two weeks, it will likely be the most boring and mundane parts of practice that will make the difference.s.