Defense, special teams star in Illini win over Hoosiers

Halfway through the season, the Illinois football team had drawn criticism for not being able to close out victories in the second half, as well as their inability to force turnovers.

The Illini silenced their critics in both areas Saturday as they defeated the Indiana Hoosiers, 43-13.

“It was a great win for us,” Illinois head coach Ron Zook said after the game.

“Anytime we play Indiana, it’s always a barn-burner. It’s always one that you don’t usually know who’s going to win until the end … I think our defense did a great job against an awfully, awfully good offense.”

Playing against an offense that entered the game averaging more than 34 points per game, the Illini defense set the tone early with an interception by Tavon Wilson on the first possession of the game. Before the day was over, the Illini defense picked off four passes, returning two for touchdowns, and forced a fumble. In all, the five turnovers nearly doubled the team’s takeaways for the season, bringing their total to 13 through seven games.

“It was a real successful day for the defense,” Illini linebacker Nate Bussey said. “The defense got it going … We were getting turnovers and giving the offense extra possessions; it really helped us win the game today.”

The turnovers allowed the defense to hold the Hoosiers to their second lowest point total of the season, despite giving up nearly 400 total yards and losing the time of possession by almost 10 minutes.

“We just came out with a chip on our shoulder from last week,” said cornerback Patrick Nixon-Youman, who had a 68-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter. “We just came back, worked hard, and we just connected on the plays that we didn’t last week.”

The turnovers were also forced in large part by the defensive line, which pressured Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell throughout the day. While the defense recorded just one sack and one quarterback hit, Chappell was not afforded much time inside the pocket.

Defensive tackle Corey Liuget said the Illini were resilient throughout the game, even though the results weren’t there early on.

“That quarterback, he’s a good quarterback. We were getting some pressure and he was getting rid of it,” Liuget said. “But we pressured him and kept coming after him. We didn’t hold back anything, just kept going and were relentless to the ball.”

“Eventually, it’s going to take a toll on him, and we’re just going to keep on coming. Then we’re going to put a knife in his heart, then that’s when we’re going to go ahead and take his soul from him.”

The Illini were solid in all three phases of the game, as even the special teams unit was part of the scoring. Early in the third quarter, linebacker Martez Wilson broke through to block a punt and give the Illini the ball deep in Hoosier territory.

After a Nathan Scheelhaase fumble and a three-and-out by the Indiana offense, the Illini once again broke through the line. This time, it was Bussey who knocked the ball loose before it could even be kicked, and Indiana recovered the ball in the end zone for a safety.

“The blocked punt really came at a crucial time of the game,” Bussey said. “We were still up, but it just came at the right time and the right moment.”

“We watched film and we saw a couple lapses (in their blocking), and we just took advantage of it,” Bussey added.

Perhaps the most notable difference, though, was the team’s ability to close out the victory in the second half. In each of the team’s three previous losses, Illinois had held a first half lead only to see it disappear after halftime.

Entering Saturday’s game, the Illini had been outscored by 23 points in the second half. However, they were able to hold Indiana to just three second half points while putting 16 of their own on the board.

“We set our sights on finishing the game,” Bussey said. “We always played a good first half, but the coaches always tell us that we need to come out and finish the game. We got another 30 minutes to go. Today, we set ourselves up to finish the game for all four quarters.”

Want to hear exclusive post-game interviews on the Fighting Illini victory over the Hoosiers? Listen to the audio clips online at DailyIllini.com.