‘Crazy’ gameplan pays off for Illini defense

Last Monday, Vic Koenning never second-guessed himself when putting his Arizona State game plan together.

“We said this is crazy, but it ought to work,” Illinois’ defensive coordinator said. “The guys did a good job all week of practicing it. There were some things we didn’t do perfect in the game, especially early. Early, we were messing up a bunch of stuff.”

The early mistakes were due in large part to the tough challenge presented by Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler. Illini head coach Ron Zook said he’d never played against a taller quarterback than Osweiler. So far this season, he has led the Sun Devils’ passing attack to 12th-best in the nation, averaging 314.7 yards per game through the air.

“I said all along that they were not coming from Arizona to run the football,” Zook said. “Even though they got some yards running, I kept telling (Koenning) don’t worry about it, they aren’t going to beat us running the football. They came here to throw the football. I think they got a little frustrated, at the end particularly, but (the defense) had a great plan.”

Koenning’s plan was simple: pressure Osweiler with a three-man front and consistently send a linebacker into the backfield, leaving the rest of the defense to fall back into coverage. The defense finished with six sacks, four quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and two interceptions.

“Coach Vic did a great job with mixing up the blitzes and finding the weaknesses in their line and their blocking scheme,” junior bandit Michael Buchanan said. “We give it to Coach Vic, he did a great job of putting us in a position to make plays.”

*Scheelhaase injury not considered serious*

With the Illini trailing by four points and desperately needing a score with just under 12 minutes remaining in the game, Zook surprised everybody by sending out true freshman quarterback Reilly O’Toole to begin the drive rather than established sophomore starter Nathan Scheelhaase.

O’Toole’s appearance was short-lived, though, as his lone play resulted in a pass interference penalty that gave the Illini a 1st and 10 from the ASU 26-yard line.

Scheelhaase then returned and, four plays later, threw a touchdown pass to A.J. Jenkins that would ultimately be the difference in the game.

After the game, Zook made it clear that there is not a quarterback controversy brewing. Instead, he said Scheelhaase had been dealing with a sore right shoulder suffered during a hit earlier in the game.

“That was the reason, because you could tell it was bothering him a little bit,” Zook said. “I think that just lit a little fire under him and he took over from there.”

Scheelhaase said the injury happened on a scramble play after he was taken to the ground.

“I was praying, praying, praying like crazy to just give me another chance when I get out there,” he said. “I was able throw the ball, have enough strength to do it and we got the win.”

While the injury certainly was cause for some tense moments during the game, both Zook and Scheelhaase were confident the injury would not have any lingering effects on the quarterback going forward.

“It’s not anything, it’s not serious,” Zook said. “He’ll be fine.”

*Brown named Defensive Player of the Week*

Before the season, Illinois’ linebacking corps was considered among the weakest in the conference by many experts due in large part to the host of inexperienced players who were expected to receive significant playing time. Through three games, however, those same young players have been the key to one of the top defenses in the country.

Against Arizona State on Saturday, sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown led the charge, recording seven tackles and setting career highs with three and a half tackles for a loss and one and a half sacks. Brown also picked off ASU quarterback Brock Osweiler once and delievered a big hit that led to another.

“During the week, we just worked on how we were going to work together as a defense to stop them, and really I just did my assignment, what Coach Vic drew up,” Brown said.

For his efforts, Brown was named the Defensive Player of the Week in the Big Ten, the first Illini to win the award since Corey Liuget did so last December. The honor also marks the second weekly award won by an Illini linebacker this season, as redshirt freshman Houston Bates was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week after Illinois’ season-opening victory over Arkansas State.