Illini defensive success hinges on front-four play

Illini defensive success hinges on front-four play

By Gordon Voit

Fresno, California: A stalled Illini offense sits on the side of the road with its emergency lights blinking sheepishly. As giant-killer extraordinaire Pat Hill roams the opposing sideline — he of hunched stature and Fu Manchu fame — the WAC also-ran he is guiding comes dangerously close to losing its 16-point cushion as the Illinois offense merges back into traffic. Now deep in the final period, all that stands between Hill and another taxidermized BCS opponent is chewing up enough clock to preserve a 25-23 lead.

In an anticlimactic end to a hope-inspiring second half for Illini fans, Hill’s Fresno State squad bleeds the Illinois defense for an excruciating nine minutes and 13 seconds of three-yard dives and third-and-long miscues in the Illinois secondary. Thanks specifically to a personal foul call early in the drive and a 15-yard completion on third-and-ten, Hill seals the win and validates the 2,100 mile trek from Champaign as the trap game of all trap games.

Houston, Texas: three and a half weeks later. After falling to 6-6, Corey Liuget and the Illini front seven thrash a potent Baylor offensive line headlined by Eagles first round pick Danny Watkins and fellow All-Big 12 honoree Philip Blake. With a 38-14 victory secured in the Texas Bowl, one thing is clear: More so than nearly any other unit, an Illini win hinges on a disruptive, bludgeoning presence up front.

Take into consideration that in the four “winnable” losses of 2010 — losing a double-digit lead to Missouri, the defense-less thriller in Ann Arbor and the two beached alewives of a game at Minnesota and Fresno State — the Illini mustered just three sacks and five quarterback hurries while failing to force an interception. Contrast that to 16 sacks, nine interceptions and 23 hurries in the team’s seven wins and you have your man behind the curtain.

The Illini were able to overcome a thin and balky secondary in 2010 thanks to the blunt force trauma provided by Liuget, Clay Nurse and underclassmen Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence. When that well ran dry, it exposed the defense’s weaknesses and the offense was simply unable to outscore the likes of Michigan and Minnesota. Folks at Halas Hall know the feeling.

Don’t be lulled to sleep by what should be a comfortable opening-day win in 2011.

Yes, Arkansas State has shown its ability to play spoiler or at least come close, defeating Texas A&M in College Station in 2008, nearly toppling Iowa in their Orange Bowl season of 2009 and putting up 26 points against national champion Auburn last season in the Sept. 4 season opener. But don’t count on the Red Wolves to cross over from scare territory into the win column. It’s a farther leap than it looks.

Rather, if you do nothing else Saturday, keep your eyes glued to Nos. 79, 99, 85 and 94. There is much more than a win on the line in this game, and it has to do with the starting unit up front comprised of Craig Wilson, Whitney Mercilus, Buchanan and Spence.

Nothing short of Texas Bowl-caliber pressure on Arkansas State quarterbacks Ryan Aplin and Philip Butterfield should be considered passable, as a high-end pass rush unit is crucial in this system.

The matchup is perfect for the Illini, not only because they get to face a shifty spread offense like they will throughout the 2011 season, but because they get to go up against an offensive line that will, in theory, be completely overmatched.

The Red Wolves return just one starter from last season in sixth-year senior Tom Castilaw. The rest of the unit has four more career starts combined than I do, all from fifth-year senior Delano Moore. In the same fashion that Liuget and company dominated the line of scrimmage at the Texas Bowl, defensive line coach Keith Gilmore’s group will have to have a dominant performance Saturday if they are going to keep games within striking distance this season.

“We have to come with a lot of pressure,” Mercilus said Tuesday. “The thing is, (defensive coordinator) Vic Koenning is definitely a mastermind at that so we just have to run whatever he says.”

Perhaps the most crucial factor in the line’s new wave of faces is Wilson. At 6-foot-5, 320 pounds, the 24-year-old seems more like an offensive lineman than an interior bulldog like Spence or Liuget.

That’s because prior to this spring, Wilson was a reserve on the offensive line. After making the switch, Zook said Wilson was initially having trouble shedding blocks, which is as important of a developing story as any. Should Wilson fail to get up field, teams will be able to draw Buchanan, who fills the team’s hybrid linebacker/lineman bandit role, into coverage while they double-team Spence. However, head coach Ron Zook says Wilson has shown large strides since he made the switch.

“I think Craig Wilson is going to be a lot better at the end of the season than he is right now. I think everybody understands that. He continues to get better,” Zook said, before adding that Wilson had recently had his best practice on defense to date.

As deep as the secondary is this season — corner Tavon Wilson says he feels like the unit has much more confidence this season than in 2010, when the undermanned bunch had “four, maybe five guys that can play” — it will inevitably bend at times as it did so vexingly in Fresno.

People often forget that Baylor’s Robert Griffin finished the Texas Bowl with 306 yards with 30 of 41 passes completed. The reason for that blank spot in the minds of Illini fans is the aggregate of times Griffin was flushed out of the pocket by an Illinois defensive line firing on all cylinders. Griffin was never going to be shut down completely, but the fact that the Illini forced him into bad situations early and often made it a relatively inconsequential 306 yards.

The point is that creating havoc in the front seven, including via continued development of game-breaking linebacker Jonathan Brown, will provide significant dividends, regardless of whether the secondary can rebound from a less-than stellar 2010 season.

If they do click? This defense has a chance to finish in the top half of the conference, which is saying a lot given the losses to the NFL Draft. However, it will take a healthy and productive season from corner Terry Hawthorne and free safety Suppo Sanni, either Steve Hull or Pat Nixon-Youman to solidify himself as a plus at the safety spot, and consistent nickel coverage from the unit as a whole.

Losing Liuget, Nurse and Martez Wilson will sting all season long, but the task at hand for the defense right now needs to be to check off the first box, which Mercilus so aptly described: “coming out and just hitting Arkansas State in the mouth and just proving that we are top contenders in the Big Ten.”

_Gordon Voit is a senior in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @GordonVoit._