Defensive failures continue to plague Illini entering week six

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Jonathan Bonaguro

Ricky Smalling runs with the football at Memorial Stadium vs Nebraska on Sep 21.

By Jared Farmer, Staff Writer

“Defense wins championships” is how the old saying goes. But when the defense comes up short, there often is a need for revision. Illinois Football head coach Lovie Smith said since the end of training camp, improving the defense was a top priority.

“A lot of us, including me, need to do a better job,” Smith said.

Coming together on defense has been one of the biggest issues this Illini Football team has dealt with since Hardy Nickerson’s resignation. Smith took over full-time duties as defensive coordinator after Nickerson’s defense lost 63-33 to the Maryland Terrapins. The defense allowed a Maryland offense that was shut out the previous to carry for over 700 yards.

As a team last year, the Illini gave up 39.42 points per game, good for No. 120 in the NCAA. They rounded out the bottom of the barrel against the run, pass and in terms of allowing yards-per-carry.

Bringing in juniors Oluwole Betiku and Milo Eifler and freshman Marquez Beason via the transfer portal, as well as returning standout performers such as junior Jake Hansen and sophomore Jamal Woods, and an entire offseason back to the drawing board gave Smith and staff every reason to believe better days were ahead.

The defense has allowed 25.5 points per game throughout their first four games, but when excluding their season-opener against Akron, that jumps up to 33 a game. Certainly an improvement, but this team has a long way to go as a unit if it wants to establish itself in the Big Ten.

In comparison to last year, the defense is sacrificing 100 less yards per game on the rush (146) but continue to allow the same amount of passing yards per game (261.75). Again, on one hand, this is a considerable improvement, but on the other, there’s still a very long way to go.

“We’ve been better defensively than we have over the past couple of years,” Smith said after last weekend’s loss vs. Nebraska. “But tonight, it was disappointing. We weren’t the type of team we needed to be.”

No team is safe from the injury bug, including the Illini. In the offseason, the Illini lost their best defender from last year, junior Bobby Roundtree, to a severe spinal injury. Before the season opener, Beason also went out for the season after needing knee surgery.

Losing both, especially for a team that’s looking for as much possible help on that side of the field as it can get, definitely hurts.

Individually, Betiku, Hansen and Eifler, among others, have stood out and established themselves as leaders on the defensive end. But despite their individual success, gelling as a unit has proved to be a task much more difficult.

Illinois’ Big Ten opening performance against Nebraska was a perfect reflection of the state of this team’s defense. Despite what seemed like not only momentum-swinging, at-times, but game-defining sequences, the defense as a whole sacrificed nearly 700 yards as Nebraska’s quarterback Adrian Martinez came alive in the second half.

Martinez’ ability to tear through an Illini defense that was simultaneously giving the offense plenty of opportunities to turn turnovers into points last time out is a very good indicator of the status of this defense.

Too many open gaps to be found, miscommunication or a combination of the two towards the later stretches of both the Eastern Michigan and Nebraska games ultimately spelled doom.

Defense wins championships. For an Illini team still looking for its first bowl appearance in the Lovie Smith era, continuing to improve on that side of the ball is crucial. It goes without saying.

After suffering the back-to-back heartbreaking losses, the Illini will hope to fix their defensive troubles and start turning things back around this upcoming weekend, but their next opponent, the Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-0), has already gotten off to a hot start to their season.

“I think we still have more chances, a lot more chances to win, and our defense is a big part of that,” Smith said. “In previous years, we haven’t had those types of chances. We’re a better defensive football team now.”

@jaredefarmer

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