Illinois football defense makes huge improvements late

Illinois%27+Reilly+O%27Toole+runs+the+ball+during+the+game+against+Northwestern+at+Ryan+Field+on+Saturday.+The+Illini+won+47-33.
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Illinois football defense makes huge improvements late

Illinois' Reilly O'Toole runs the ball during the game against Northwestern at Ryan Field on Saturday. The Illini won 47-33.

Illinois' Reilly O'Toole runs the ball during the game against Northwestern at Ryan Field on Saturday. The Illini won 47-33.

Illinois' Reilly O'Toole runs the ball during the game against Northwestern at Ryan Field on Saturday. The Illini won 47-33.

Illinois' Reilly O'Toole runs the ball during the game against Northwestern at Ryan Field on Saturday. The Illini won 47-33.

By Sean Neumann

It may be shocking to some that Illinois is headed to a bowl game. But it’s how the team got there that’s the most surprising.

The Illini defense struggled throughout the year, standing as the worst in the Big Ten heading into must-win games against Penn State and Northwestern.

Then, something changed, and Illinois won back-to-back conference games to reach bowl eligibility.

“I wish I could tell you we were doing something different, but those kids just played hard,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “They understood the game plan and exactly what we were trying to get done.”

Illinois allowed less than 200 yards in each of the final two contests. The defense allowed an average of 267 yards in its previous 10 games.

The team forced six turnovers in its final two wins of the season after forcing just 12 in its first 10 games, including three interceptions at Northwestern. Illinois had just four on the season heading into the game.

“I think we’re playing well on defense,” linebacker Mason Monheim said. “The last half of the season, we’ve really turned it up a notch.” 

O’Toole giving Illinois an O’ffensive boost

The Illini offense has also seemed re-energized, scoring a season-high 47 points in its final regular season game at Northwestern.

Senior quarterback Reilly O’Toole has made the most of his opportunity to play in relief of an injured Wes Lunt midway through the season. So much so that he’s taken his starting job.

O’Toole ran for a career-high 147 yards and threw for three touchdowns Saturday, leading his team to its first postseason since 2011.

“It’s fun to be playing your best football at the end of the year,” O’Toole said. “I think any team can attest to that.”

A damaged offense line even stepped up while missing two starting lineman — Simon Cvijanovic and Ted Karras.

Illinois didn’t allow a sack on Saturday for the first time all season

Going Bowling

The bowl-bound Illini will be the first team to reach a bowl game since 2011 and only the fourth in the past decade.

“I didn’t realize (the program) was this down, but I think we’re moving in the direction we need to,” head coach Tim Beckman said. “Are we there yet? Heck no. I want to continue to build this thing into being a powerhouse.”

Illinois has improved by two wins each season since Beckman took over as head coach in 2012.

The Illini are likely to go to the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit, Mich., or the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl in Dallas, Tex., – both games are on Dec. 26.

The team’s improvement late in the season also means Beckman and his staff will remain with the program for another season, according to a vote of confidence given by athletic director Mike Thomas on Sunday.

“There’s no question this team is a family,” Beckman said. “That to me is what college football is all about, and I get an opportunity to be with the seniors again for another opportunity to play on the field.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @neumannthehuman.