Illinois football trying to convert practice success to game success


Tyler Courtney | The Daily Illin

Defensive lineman Dawuane Smoot looks to record a sack against Middle Tennesse on September 30, 2015.

By Cole Henke, Staff writer

Illinois football’s defense has not recovered a fumble in the last 120 minutes of game time, nor has it recorded an interception in 173 minutes.

The Illini spend every play in practice trying to force turnovers by slapping, punching and scratching every play for the ball.

Linebacker Hardy Nickerson said it all works in practice, but that mentality has not been brought to the field.

“We emphasize turnovers every day in practice,” Nickerson said. “In practice, we are punching the ball out and we are yanking it. But for whatever reason, when we get in the game that is not our focus. I think we need to emphasize it more in games.”

The Illini defense hasn’t forced a turnover in the last two games. Illinois recovered one fumble when North Carolina muffed a punt, but the returner wasn’t touched before dropping the ball, so it wasn’t considered forced.

Consequently, the Illini have lost the turnover battle in the last two games. The offense has only committed three turnovers so far this season, and quarterback Wes Lunt has only thrown one interception, which came late in the fourth quarter against Western Michigan.The last time the Illini won a football game in which they lost the turnover battle was last season in the win against Western Illinois.

After the bye week, the Illini enter the Big Ten schedule, and Smith said that the Illini need to win the turnover battle to compete.

“We are just not executing the way we need to,” Smith said. “We can play better. We have been practicing better than that. It’s as simple as that. Every play we are trying to commit a turnover. Every down defensively that is what we are preaching. We are not getting that done right now, but eventually, it will come around.”

The Illini defense has recorded 32.0 tackles for a loss, compared to 20 by their opponents. Defensive lineman Carroll Phillips is leading the nation in tackles for loss, and as a team, the Illini have also recorded 13 sacks.

No facet of the Illini’s game is in good shape right now from a statistical point of view. The offense is averaging 5.9 yards per play – 4.8 yards per play in the last two games, after having rushed for only three yards in the last game. The special teams unit has also been without starting punter Ryan Frain for the past two games.

Smith is a proclaimed defensive guru. He said all offseason that his team would have an offensive mind on defense. Outside of the first quarter of the opener against Murray State, the numbers don’t demonstrate this strategy. After the loss against Western Michigan, Nickerson said that it all just comes down to people doing their part.

“Defensively, we didn’t take the ball away, and at times we were soft against the run,” Nickerson said. “So you know it was just our points of emphasis when we entered the season, stopping the run, taking the ball away and getting off the field on third down, aren’t showing up right now.”

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