Illinois’ defense holds off Western Kentucky

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Illinois’ defense holds off Western Kentucky

Illinois' Taylor Barton intercepts a Western Kentucky pass for a 77-yard touchdown at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.The Illini won 42-34.

Illinois' Taylor Barton intercepts a Western Kentucky pass for a 77-yard touchdown at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.The Illini won 42-34.

Illinois' Taylor Barton intercepts a Western Kentucky pass for a 77-yard touchdown at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.The Illini won 42-34.

Illinois' Taylor Barton intercepts a Western Kentucky pass for a 77-yard touchdown at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.The Illini won 42-34.

By Sean Neumann

Don’t let the numbers fool you, Illinois’ defense came up big in Saturday’s 42-34 win over Western Kentucky.

The defense forced three turnovers on the day. The biggest momentum changer was safety Taylor Barton’s 77-yard touchdown return on an interception in the fourth quarter, — a type of play head coach Tim Beckman said begins with the defensive line rushing the quarterback.

The defensive line had two sacks, forced a fumble and recovered another.

“It was extremely important (to put pressure on the quarterback),” defensive lineman DeJazz Woods said. “When you’re hustling to the ball, good things are going to happen.”

Illinois’ secondary also held Western Kentucky’s up-tempo offense to 297 yards through the air — the Hilltoppers had for 569 passing yards last week. 

“The secondary played really well as a whole group,” safety Zane Petty said. “All week we were talking about how this was a test for us to see what we could do, and as a secondary, I really think that we proved that we can compete.”

Mistakes nearly cost the game

Illinois’ win didn’t come easy. There were four lead changes throughout the game, and the Illini trailed heading into the fourth quarter for the second consecutive week.

The Illinois offense had three turnovers, including a 95-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Hilltopper defensive back Wonderful Terry in the third quarter. The fumble return gave Western Kentucky a 24-21 lead and swung the momentum.

Beckman said the team’s maturity and senior leadership were keys in turning the momentum back around after the interception.

“On the sidelines, there were some great seniors who stood up and said, ‘We still have this game,’” Beckman said. “They responded and that’s exactly what you want to see as a football coach. They responded and got us a win.”

The Illini also had nine penalties in the game, giving Western Kentucky 69 free yards.

Illini kicker Taylor Zalewski had his second consecutive game with a penalty for kicking the ball out-of-bounds on a kickoff. Zalewski also missed a 50-yard field goal late in the first half.

“We’ve got a long ways to go there,” Beckman said. “We cannot miss field goals, and we cannot kick balls out-of-bounds. There’s going to be some challenges at the kicking position.”

Offensive line steps up

It all starts up front.

Illinois’ passing game flourished against Western Kentucky — sophomore quarterback Wes Lunt had 456 yards and three touchdowns in his second start.

But Lunt wouldn’t have time to pass the ball without Illinois’ offensive line.

The line was forced to make adjustments after right guard Pat Flavin was injured in practice earlier this week. Sophomore Joe Spencer was called upon to play center, forcing left guard Mike Heitz to right tackle and center Alex Hill to left guard. Hill would leave the game with an injury and was replaced by Chris O’Connor. 

There were hiccups — Hilltopper linebacker Nick Holt rushed Spencer and tackled Lunt for a four-yard loss before Lunt seemed to know what hit him — but the offensive line held Western Kentucky to just one sack on the day.

“They did a great job, especially with all the injuries,” Lunt said. “I’m really proud of those guys.”

Beckman wasn’t satisfied with the offensive production, despite putting up 42 points — he was particularly upset with a failed Illini conversion on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line early in the game.

“I still don’t feel like offensively we’re clicking yet,” Beckman said. “If it’s fourth-and-inches, we’re going to go for it. You go for it, you run the play, and you put it in the end zone.”

But Beckman was happy with young players stepping in on the offensive line — particularly O’Conner who entered the game after Hill’s injury. 

“That’s the mark of being a prepared football player,” Beckman said. “You never know when your name is going to be called. I thought he did exactly what we needed him to do.”

Lunt agreed with Beckman that the offense still needs work, but there’s no question Illinois’ receiving corps is beginning to click with Lunt, who threw 17 passes for a gain of more than 10 yards and four for more than 30 yards — including Justin Hardee’s 62-yard touchdown reception to put Illinois up 28-27 in the fourth quarter.

“He did a heck of a job,” Lunt said of Hardee. “He’s a kid that works his tail off and deserves everything he gets. The receivers we doing a great job running routes — it felt really good.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @Neumannthehuman.