Illini assess their season play and last opponent

 

 

By Daniel Johnson

In the last chance to prove himself during his junior year, Juice Williams will face one of the most improved teams, and defenses, in the Big Ten. Heading into last year’s season-ending game against Illinois, the Wildcats had let up more than 330 points to 11 opponents — a number that fell to 222 through the same span this year.

Monday night, Williams talked about what he has seen as the change in Northwestern.

“They’re much improved, they have a new defense coordinator (Mike Hankwitz). He’s done a great job of putting together packages and disguising coverages,” Williams said. “That’s going to be key for me this game, to be able to see their safeties and try to understand their coverage.”

The Illini signal-caller was particularly mindful of two players on the Wildcats defense.

“(Defensive end Corey Wootton) has always been impressive, ever since my freshman year, he’s been a big player for them,” Williams said. “He’s a 6-foot-7 guy up front, he’s tall. I met (safety Brendan Smith) up in Chicago. He’s really active, too. He played a great game against Minnesota.”

Lindquist on the defense and its linemen

After being tabbed as the strength of the team entering the season, the Illini defensive line has had its good days and bad. Although the defense is not on pace to equal its sack or quarterback hurry total from last season, the group is still growing, according to senior defensive lineman David Lindquist.

“I definitely think we’ve made progress this year,” Lindquist said. “(Defensive line coach Tom Sims) brought some guys in, and we’ve played freshmen like Corey (Liuget), that’s helped to give us a lot of depth. We’ve gotten after the quarterback about as much as last year with some different personnel, even if the numbers aren’t exactly the same.”

The difference for the team this year has been the influx of the highly talented and young players, like defensive tackles Liuget and Josh Brent.

“They’re showing a lot of potential, and it’s on us older guys to make sure that we were instilling the work ethic in them throughout the season and now at the end,” Lindquist said.

When asked what he would remember most, Lindquist would not cite one specific thing, rather, like most of the players on the team, the overall experience and changes the program went through.

“I can’t really say anything that stood out specifically,” Lindquist said. “I think just in general, from a I’m-leaving-and-this-is-bittersweet standpoint to just being able to hangout with all the guys in the defensive line room. Building that camaraderie.”

The axe, the hammer and the pink boa

Illinois’ offensive line nominates three players every week to receive the axe, the hammer and the pink boa awards. The axe is awarded to the player who totals the most knock-downs of defensive players. The hammer is for the player who helps to get in extra blocks on other defensive players while engaging his assigned player or after his finishes his block. The pink boa goes to the player that is the most passive or least physical while blocking on the line.

Senior center Ryan McDonald explained why the award hasn’t been as prevalent or as celebrated this year as it was last year.

“For some reason, we haven’t had as many knock-downs this year, a couple games the boa has gravitated toward me, so I don’t know if I really like admitting that or not,” McDonald said. “It’s something that we haven’t been paying as much attention to this year.

“It might be (that we haven’t done as well as last year), it might just be that we’re just trying to focus on making things right,” McDonald added. “That’s a lot more important to us.”

Coupled with the lessening effect of the award has been McDonald’s estimation that there’s more to be done as a group.

“I don’t feel that I’ve personally played up to the level that I’m capable of, it’s a frustrating thing.” McDonald said. “But as a group, we’ve been up and down too. Certainly, we’re a lot less healthy than we were last year, but you can’t blame everything on that. We’ve just been inconsistent this year.”