Solid defensive performance key in Senior Day victory against Northwestern

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Photo Courtesy of Craig Pessman / Illinois Athletics

Illinois defensive back Tony Adams flexes in celebration during Illinois’ 47-14 win over Northwestern on Saturday. Adams and the Illini defense dominated, forcing two turnovers while allowing just 14 points in the emphatic win.

By Will Payne, Assistant Sports Editor

During this season’s bye week, Illinois extended first-year defensive coordinator Ryan Walters through 2024, and Saturday’s game against Northwestern showed how smart of a move this will be for the program’s future.

The Illini stepped up this afternoon at Memorial Stadium and delivered an end-to-end performance against their in-state Big Ten rivals. The 47-14 victory over Northwestern marked the team’s first win against the Wildcats since 2014, a streak the program was delighted to see end. 

When looking at the box score of this game, it’s impossible not to be impressed with Illinois’ offense output. It’s not every day that you see Brandon Peters and this Illinois offense put up 47 points in a single game, totaling an absurd 459 yards.

On the other side of the ball, Illinois also was quite impressive in Saturday’s victory. They held the Wildcats to no scores in both the first and third quarters while only allowing two red zone attempts the entire game. The Illini also forced two fumbles, an interception and sacked Northwestern’s quarterback Ryan Hilinski three times.

Tarique Barnes was the standout performer from the defense, racking up eight tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. Jartavius Martin also picked off his first pass of the season, which led to an Illinois touchdown on offense. 

Saturday’s game against Northwestern marked Senior Day for the Illini, as a few key members of this season’s defense will be departing Champaign upon the season’s end. Fifth-year seniors Owen Carney and Isaiah Gay were vital up front for Illinois this year, and although head coach Bret Bielema will be sad to see them leave, he’s excited about everyone returning next year on this defense.

“Defensively, it’s fun to see Owen Carney and Isaiah Gay play well,” Bielema said. “Those two guys are really the only two we lose next season. We’ll have the majority of our guys coming back defensively.”

Although Carney only had one tackle versus Northwestern, the Miami native has been a key member in Illinois’ front seven throughout the entire season. Unless Illinois somehow qualifies for a bowl game, this will have been Carney’s last game donning the orange and blue. Carney is hopeful that the defense can build off the strong performances from this year and inspire the future classes.

“They can build off everything: the highs, the lows, the ups, the downs,” Carney said. “I think we showed this class behind us and the classes before them a lot. How to handle adversity, how to weather the storm and how to finish games and win games.”

Another key contributor to this defense has been fifth-year senior Tony Adams. The defensive back had five tackles and a sack against Northwestern. He knows that there are many positives to be taken from this year, and Adams loved to see the growth of the program. 

“I think every Big Ten team we played, except for Wisconsin, was less than a score,” Adams said. “I think that is something to build off for future teams. From where we started to where we are now, I think we can be grateful for that.”

 

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