Banks’ defensive plan finally pulls through for Illinois

Illinois’ Jarrod Clements (99) tackles Minnesota’s David Cobb (27) during the homecoming game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. The Illini won 28-24.

By Sean Neumann

Overall, it was a good day for Tim Banks. 

Illinois’ defense looked strong Saturday in Illinois’ 28-24 win over Minnesota, despite briefly falling apart in the third quarter.

“It’s great. You’re like a father to them,” the Illini defensive coordinator said. “For me, when they have success, it gives me great joy.”

Banks has been adamant about using the same approach week in and week out, going up against some of the nation’s top rushers in Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon.

On Saturday, it was David Cobb — the nation’s fifth leading rusher — threatening the Illini defense from the Minnesota backfield.

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Illinois held the running back to just 24 rushing yards on 12 attempts in the first half. For the first time this season, Banks’ plan seemed to be working.

Banks said there’s “no secret formula” when it comes to getting the defense to execute the game plan.

“If I could bottle it up, I’d sell it across the country,” Banks joked after the win.

Head coach Tim Beckman said Illinois’ bye week was the most important factor.

“I think we were fresher,” Beckman said. “They’ve been going since June 10 without a break.”

The Illini defensive line had four sacks and helped force three turnovers on the day for the second time this season.

At halftime, the 122nd-ranked Illini rushing defense held the Golden Gophers to just 56 yards on the ground.

But by the end of the third quarter, Cobb had 116 yards rushing. Minnesota was able to rack up 153 as a unit.

Beckman said the defensive fallback in the third quarter was his fault, having lost his temper on the sideline with the referees — an emotional factor that he saw bleed into the players’ focus.

Illinois saw its lead slip away, letting a 14-3 advantage quickly turn into a 24-21 deficit heading into the fourth. 

And then, after showing signs of turning back into the same Illinois defense fans have seen all season — the same one that allowed Abdullah three touchdowns on 208 yards and Gordon four on 175 yards earlier this season — the game turned back in Illinois’ favor.

Gophers kicker Ryan Santoso missed a 40-yard field goal attempt and on the next drive, Justin DuVernois’ 59-yard punt pinned Minnesota on its own 20-yard line.

On third-and-14, the momentum changed for good. Illini linebacker T.J. Neal hit Cobb with force and knocked the ball out. Defensive back V’Angelo Bentley scrambled to pick it up and returned the fumble for an Illini touchdown, taking back the lead.

“We stood tall,” Illini linebacker Mason Monheim said of the Illini defense.

Monheim, who intercepted a pass early in the third quarter, said the Illini knew they were never out of the game.

“We believe in each other,” Monheim said. “We have great love for each other. No matter what anybody says outside of our locker room, we’re never out of the fight.”

In a season of defensive disappointment, it was Banks’ crew that pinned Illinois’ fourth win of the season to the wall.

Sean can be reached at spneuma2 and on Twitter