Illini defense helps spark victory over Hoosiers

During the Ron Zook era, Illinois has built a reputation as one of the best running teams in the nation, ranking at the top of the Big Ten in rushing during that time.

This season has been no different, as the Illini have surpassed the 200-yard rushing mark four times this season and twice have surpassed 300 yards.

This season, though, Illinois has begun building a new reputation — run-stopper.

Through six games, Illinois has given up just 79.7 yards per game on the ground while allowing just 2.3 yards per carry; both numbers rank second in the Big Ten.

Against Indiana on Saturday, the Illini gave up just 83 yards on the ground, marking the fourth game in which the Illini have held their opponent under the century mark.

“We saw some different stuff out of them,” defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said of Indiana. “They had shown it, but like six, seven times in four games, and then today it was (a lot) I gotta go back and see what we’ve done that makes people think they can run the ball, because we really haven’t given up much run yardage.”

The performance against Indiana came without suspended Illini starting linebacker Jonathan Brown, and middle linebacker Ian Thomas was severely limited by an illness. Taking their places were redshirt freshman Houston Bates and true freshman Henry Dickinson.

“Without looking at the film, I think they did OK,” Koenning said. “I think they were in the right spot, which was a plus.”

Despite the personnel issues, the defense wasn’t done any favors by the rest of the team. They were put in an early hole following a 99-yard kickoff return to start the game, and twice were forced into short-field situations following turnovers by the offense, including one drive that started at Illinois’ 3-yard line.

However, the defense was able to escape both situations with only three points going on the board.

“That’s our job,” bandit Michael Buchanan said “When it’s a sudden change, it’s our job to keep them out of the end zone. So we held them to a field goal, felt pretty good about that, and throughout the rest of the game did our best to stop them.”

In fact, with the offense struggling early with two fumbles in their first four possessions, it was the defense that sparked the Illini.

Trailing 10-7, defensive end Whitney Mercilus hit quarterback Dusty Kiel and caused a fumble, one which was recovered by cornerback Tavon Wilson and carried 66 yards into the endzone for to put the Illini ahead for good.

“It was very important,” Wilson said. “We felt like that was the momentum-changer in the game. Coach Vic is always talking about turnovers and helping the offense out with points.”

Even after a late drive and touchdown, the Illini still ended the game with just 302 yards allowed. But even that wasn’t good enough for Buchanan to be completely satisfied.

“We played pretty good,” Buchanan said. “I felt like we still could have played better. We left some plays out on the field. It’s just one of those things we gotta work on, playing a full game and just playing with intensity every single play.”