Illinois defense brought back down to Earth, and that is good

Freshman+defensive+end+Bobby+Roundtree+celebrates+after%0Amaking+a+tackle+during+the+Sept.+9+game+against+Western%0AKentucky.+The+Illini+won+20-7.

Quentin Shaw

Freshman defensive end Bobby Roundtree celebrates after making a tackle during the Sept. 9 game against Western Kentucky. The Illini won 20-7.

By Cole Henke, Sports editor

When a program is going through a long-term rebuild like Illinois is, it is easy for fans to get too eager and think the end is closer than it really is.

The first two weeks of this season were the perfect example of this. Illinois came into its game against Ball State, played a ton of freshmen and scraped out an ugly win. Then in Week 2 against Western Kentucky, the Illini defense looked like it was one of the best in the Big Ten.

The team was 2-0, the freshmen were all playing well — some of them even leading the team — and the Illini were exceeding expectations. It looked like the defense could carry this team through the season by itself.

However, all of that positivity was leading toward a letdown. I don’t think that was a bad thing, though. Every experience these freshmen get on the field is a good one. Head coach Lovie Smith is going to be banking on these underclassmen for a long time, and for them to play against a ranked team this early shows them exactly what they need to do to get better.

I never felt good about this week’s game against South Florida. I know that is easy to say when the Illini were 17-point underdogs, but there was definitely a lot of optimism flying around.

But after all of the talk about the lack of practice for the Bulls due to Hurricane Irma, or their weak defense possibly offering some scoring opportunities, the Illini got demolished. It felt like all of the progress that the Illini made the past two weeks was wiped away.

Fan morale just kept getting lower and lower with each point the Bulls racked up, and there were a lot of points. The game started off slow, but the Illini defense could only keep Bulls’ quarterback Quinton Flowers at bay for so long.

The defense that looked so great just a week before got absolutely ripped to shreds by Flowers. Whether it was through the air or on the ground, the Bulls had their way all night, and in the process showed Illini fans that the rebuild is a long way from being done.

Flowers threw for 280 yards and four touchdowns. The Illini defensive ends, freshmen Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay, who dominated Western Kentucky, found themselves constantly chasing Flowers in the backfield. The potential Heisman candidate did what he wanted all game.

This was good though. Gay and Roundtree are fantastic players who started off the season really hot. This experience against one of the best quarterbacks in the nation will be invaluable in the long run. That doesn’t only apply to Roundtree and Gay, either. Linemen Tymir Oliver and Sean Adesanya and cornerback Tony Adams all picked up sacks in the game, but I’m sure they aren’t celebrating right now.

The young Illinois secondary got their leader in Jaylen Dunlap back from injury, but the Illini are still going to be relying on the underclassmen to play great defense. That wasn’t really the case on Saturday, however. When they weren’t worrying about stopping the run, the Illini secondary was getting burnt consistently. South Florida picked up an average of 17.9 yards per reception. Most of those were coming after Flowers dodged about a million tackles, leaving the defensive backs to constantly chase around the opposing wide receivers.

The Illini defense has the capability to be a solid threat, and honestly should have played better on Saturday. I’m sure the players will be the first to tell you that. But this loss to the Bulls, no matter how demoralizing it may seem, will be good for these freshmen in the long run.

Right now, they want the win, but there are plenty more of those to come.

Cole is a junior in Media.
@cole_Henke
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