Victory over Arizona State boosts Illinois football morale, rankings

All offseason, Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning endured speculation that his linebacker and lineman groups were some of the worst — if not the worst — in the Big Ten.

For the most part, the talk was not unfounded: Illinois’ front seven alone had lost three players, linebackers Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey and lineman Corey Liuget, to the NFL draft and another, defensive end Clay Nurse, to graduation.

But the remaining Illini players didn’t buy into all the talk. Instead, they used it as motivation.

“If they’re not, then they’d be making a mistake,” Koenning said. “You have to be motivated from a lot of things, and that’s something we can use.”

Koenning said he was sure to make his group aware of the talk going on outside the team, and the players were more than ready to prove their critics wrong.

“Nobody likes to be last,” linebacker Jonathan Brown said. “Especially when we know we can play with anybody. We know we’re probably the best linebacker corps in the Big Ten, so going into the season ranked last, it definitely added fuel to the fire.”

While that may seem like a bold claim, the numbers back up Brown’s statements. Through three games, the Illini defense ranks 17th in the country in total defense, having allowed just under 270 yards per game and three total touchdowns. They also rank 11th in the nation in scoring defense, giving up an average 10.7 points per game — the Illini would rank higher, in a tie for eighth, if it wasn’t for a safety by the offense.

“I don’t know about the numbers, but I know how we go out and play every week,” Brown said. “We play like we’re the best linebacker corps, best defense in the Big Ten and I think it’s going to pay off.”

After all the speculation, it seems those outside the program have begun to take notice. Redshirt freshman linebacker Houston Bates was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week after the Illini’s season-opening win against Arkansas State, and Brown’s performance against Arizona State this past week earned him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week.

But for Koenning, those awards tell only part of the story.

“I just told the linebackers, I said ‘Bates, you got freshman of the week, and JB you got defensive player this week, but you know what? Ian (Thomas) may have played the best game of anybody in the second game, and nobody did anything but pat him on the back.’ That’s the best I’ve seen Ian play since I’ve been here,” Koenning said.

As the linebackers continue to prove doubters wrong and rack up accolades in the process, the other group that took heat this offseason, the defensive line, continues to impress without fanfare.

“Those guys took it as a challenge, this is their opportunity,” head coach Ron Zook said. “That’s what’s kind of exciting about a new year is you got a chance to have guys that get to show people, ‘Hey, we can play. We’re not chopped liver.’ And I think those guys have done a nice job of that.”

While many cited inexperience as the defensive line’s biggest issue, Zook said that is not actually the case. Sophomore defensive tackle Akeem Spence was named a Freshman All-American by multiple media outlets after last season, while Zook called junior defensive end Whitney Mercilus the team’s “best defensive end” at the end of last season.

Illinois has gotten unexpected production from junior Glenn Foster, who recorded just 10 tackles last season despite playing in all 13 games. This season, though, Foster has been a revelation as a pass rusher, whom Zook called a “high-energy” guy.

“He probably surprised me from the aspect of the level that he’s been playing at consistently,” Zook said. “I’m just so happy for Glenn, because you knew Glenn had it and he’d do it in spurts, but the consistency thing, he’s really there now.”

More than anything, though, Zook has seen the right attitude from his defensive line.

“They have a lot of fun, they play with a lot of emotion,” Zook said. “I think that’s how you play defense.”