Koenning looking to repeat past success, force more turnovers

When defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was at Troy, his defenses were known for forcing turnovers.

In 2004, Troy led the nation in interceptions while tying for second in total turnovers forced. That reputation followed Koenning to Clemson, where his defense led the ACC in turnover margin during the 2007 season and tied for eighth in the country in interceptions in 2008.

Now at Illinois, Koenning has turned the Illini defense — one of the worst in the Big Ten a year ago — into one that has just allowed 18.5 points per game this season. However, the Illini have yet to force the numerous turnovers Koenning has become accustomed to.

“I’ve never had an issue (with turnovers),” Koenning said. “As a matter of fact, I’ve been blessed. I’ve had some groups that have been in the top in the country in that almost every year. We’re just not getting enough here for some reason, and I gotta find a way to make that happen.”

Through six games this season, Illinois is tied for 108th in the nation in turnover margin out of 120 teams. The Illini have forced just eight turnovers — five fumbles and three interceptions — while the offense has turned the ball over 14 times. “Turnovers are pastries, and we gotta go take them. We gotta take the ball away,” Koenning said.

Illinois head coach Ron Zook said the team stresses turnovers in practice during the week, with the goal being to force three or four each game.

“We talk about it, we stress it,” Zook said. “We rip the ball out in practice and go get the football. Turnovers, sometimes they kind of come and go … The thing we’ve got to do is try to come up with more opportunities for the offense to have the ball and that’s something we continue to stress and work on.”

Defensive tackle Corey Liuget said now that the defense has established itself, the turnovers will start to come more often.

“We just mainly wanted to be a very feared defense and just get to the ball. We weren’t really thinking about getting the ball out (before now),” Liuget said.

“(Now) we just work on drills — ripping-the-ball-out drills, interception drills, working on the ball, getting our hands up and batting the ball, pass breakups,” Liuget said.

Koenning also said the Illini could force more fumbles if they were more willing to hit receivers.

“We’ve been trying so hard to avoid contact and all the collisions with receivers and everything, we just don’t hit them,” Koenning said. “We have to find a way of getting to the ball.”