Illinois football’s defense finally celebrates after win over Nebraska

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The Illinois defense lines up against Nebraska.

By Michal Dwojak, Staff writer

Mason Monheim ran toward the Memorial Stadium stands Saturday night with a smile on his face — his prayers had been answered.

The Illinois football linebacker ran through the mist and the sea of teammates in orange looking for his family. His search was difficult: He had to scan the mixed crowd of Nebraska and Illinois fans for his family, who weren’t the only ones wearing orange No. 43 jerseys. But once he found his family, it was worth the struggle. He went to his brother and they hugged, a celebration years in the making.

Monheim ran toward the north end zone when he realized the Marching Illini were playing Alma Mater. The “Our Fathers” that he said during the team’s game-winning drive were answered.

Frustration from past defenses’ struggles were relieved. Illinois’ defense made its statement in the Illini’s 14-13 win over the Cornhuskers, a moment the senior captain has waited for since he started in his freshman season.

“It’s just a long time coming,” Monheim said. “As a leader, I try and be the best person I can be to them but it’s not one person, it’s not one man, it’s one team.”

The linebacker tied for the team lead with 10 total tackles and helped anchor a defense that kept the Illini in the game when their offense failed to gain any momentum.

After each failed offensive drive, the Illini defensive players ran onto the field and stopped Nebraska’s offense from scoring time and time again.

Nebraska’s quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw for 105 yards and ran for 38 while Nebraska’s running backs finished with 149 rushing yards. Nebraska managed to drive down the field in the second quarter thanks in part to a 32-yard run by Armstrong and a 15-yard personal foul on Illinois defensive lineman Dawuane SmootJT.

Illinois defense’s strongest stop came in the final five minutes of the game. With 4:38 left in the game, Nebraska started a drive on its own 38-yard line. Illinois had three timeouts but Nebraska continued to drive down the field with running plays.

The Cornhuskers recorded two first downs and drained the clock down to 55 seconds. Armstrong took the ball on fourth down and ran to his right, attempting a pass to Andy Janovich. The ball fell to the ground and quarterback Wes Lunt led the offense down the field for the game-winning touchdown.

Head coach Bill Cubit praised the defense for its ability to keep the team in the game. The former Illini offensive coordinator was forced to fight large deficits in past seasons and now paid respect to a strong defensive performance.

“The defense was unbelievable,” Cubit said. “This is the first time when I’ve been here that the defensive line looks like a Big Ten defensive line. We’re playing well up front there … If it wasn’t for the defense, we wouldn’t be talking about this win.”

Although emotions ran high on the field and in the locker room after the game, players know that a one-game performance is only just the start.

Illinois still has seven Big Ten opponents left to play. But after seasons of being on the wrong end of blowouts and answering the same questions about what went wrong, Monheim seemed pleased to answer questions about what went right.

“We just need to know that this is game one of the Big Ten season,” Monheim said. “This is why I came here, to play Big Ten ball. We’ll celebrate this win, we’ll feel good about it but we have a game to play in a week in a hostile environment against a very good football team.”

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