Illinois defense achieves ‘redemption’ after Iowa win

 

 

By Daniel Johnson

The Illini defensive line was supposed to be the strength of the 2008 team, supposed to pressure the quarterback with four down linemen and supposed to set the tone on the field. But injury and personal issues hampered the unit’s play.

The improvised play of the line may best be exemplified by Will Davis being forced to play out of position early in the season.

After stringing together solid efforts in recent weeks, the Illinois defense registered arguably its best game of the year, recording six sacks, two interceptions and a touchdown.

“We were definitely coming in playing for this year and last year, playing for redemption,” defensive tackle Josh Brent said.

Head coach Ron Zook asked his defense to play with emotion at the beginning of the year and pleaded for passion from the group after the slow start. Zook and the rest of his staff have had their wish granted of late, and now, it’s up to them to keep the players in check.

“Everybody was high on emotion, the coaches were trying to calm us down a little bit to stay focused, but everybody was up; it really shows,” Davis said.

Linebacker Brit Miller cited the emotion as the driving force behind his teammates’ play and the reason they were able to score their third touchdown of the year.

“That’s one of the best feelings in the world, making big plays and celebrating with your teammates in the end zone on defense,” Miller said.

Sack, FF, FR, TD by Dere Hicks

The defense’s touchdown proved to be one of the most important plays of the game in stopping Iowa’s first drive of the fourth quarter and giving the team a much-needed emotional boost.

The play by Hicks ended with the first touchdown of his collegiate career, his last coming in prep school in 2005. The sack was of little surprise to Hicks. After practicing this week, he anticipated a greater role in pressuring Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi.

“All week Coach Zook was saying that I needed to be in a position to make plays for the defense,” Hicks said. “I feel like I’ve been playing solid all year, and he moved me into the nickel, and he sent me in a nickel blitz off the edge.”

Hicks pursued Stanzi from the left side of the offensive line and flushed him to the right and into a group of Illinois defenders. Hicks’ arm met Stanzi’s and spat the ball out into the southeast corner of the field. Hicks locked in on the ball, not giving any of his teammates a shot at glory.

“I was right there, he picked it up right before I did,” Miller said.

“Dere made a great play on the quarterback, I was able to get up there and I saw the ball pop out. But a lot of times you want those athletic guys to pick it up, they’re just better at it.”

Eddie McGee, Wide Receiver

Eddie McGee practiced at wide receiver on and off for the past two years. But from the first play of the game, it was obvious McGee would see significant playing time.

McGee, who is typically one of the signal callers for Juice Williams on the sidelines, was not to be found with the group Saturday.

Rather, the sophomore was preparing with the rest of the receivers.

“During the week, the coaches told me I would be out there playing receiver,” McGee said. “I obviously can’t be playing receiver and doing signals.”

After his breakout performance, McGee responded to being compared to former Steelers’ quarterback Kordell Stewart.

“Yeah, I remember Kordell,” McGee said. “This is Juice’s team, though.

Juice has got the keys to the Porsche. He’s whipping it, so I’m just in the backseat for the ride.”

And although the quarterback-by-nature didn’t throw at all Saturday, the obvious question was whether he would be used in play packages that would involve him using his arms for more than catching.

“Well,” McGee said, nodding his head up and down, “maybe.”