Illinois defense has onus of winning game on its shoulder

Illinois’ defense is full of perfectionists.

The players and coaches on the Illinois football team won’t give themselves the credit it deserves, even after a dominating performance against Western Michigan in which the defense forced four turnovers, sacked Alex Carder twice and held the Broncos to negative six rushing yards.

When Western Michigan began to show some life on offense, driving with the score 17-7, the Illini defense stepped up and forced an interception that was returned for a touchdown, all but sealing it.

For that performance, Illinois head coach Tim Beckman gave his defense a B grade.

Defensive coordinator Tim Banks didn’t disagree, saying, “We got a long way to go.”

This Saturday, when Illinois (1-0) takes on Arizona State (1-0) at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., the Illini defensive players may yet again have the onus of winning the game on its shoulders.

Uncertainty surrounds the Illini offense after starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was carted

off the field Saturday following an injury to his left ankle. He completed practice Wednesday, which Beckman said was necessary for him to even think about playing. Still, Beckman wouldn’t make a decision until after he saw how Scheelhaase’s ankle reacted in the days following practice. Beckman knows who the starter is going to be, but he won’t reveal it before Saturday’s game.

Scheelhaase has started every game in his career at Illinois since redshirting his freshman year, but if he isn’t healthy enough to play, the Illini are prepared to play without him.

They can turn to Reilly O’Toole, the sophomore quarterback who may get his first opportunity to start at Illinois. O’Toole has seen action in 11 games as an Illini but was only 2 of 3 passing for 7 yards in limited action Saturday. He acknowledged after the game that he was disappointed in his performance, especially because coming off the bench and filling in for the starter is something he had experience in last year.

The other option is junior Miles Osei, whose versatility has allowed him to line up at different positions to try to create playmaking opportunities for the offense. Osei is also looking for his first career start at quarterback.

Beckman has not named a clear favorite for the job, neglecting to say whether he thinks Scheelhaase will play or if O’Toole or Osei has had a better practice week. As of Wednesday, he said the players were even.

When Scheelhaase left Saturday’s game, the defense felt added pressure to step up for the Illini.

The same group faces the task of stopping an Arizona State offense that scored 63 points last week, albeit against Northern Arizona. It’s a different Arizona State group than the ranked team the “Illini defeated 17-14 last season”: at Memorial Stadium. Quarterback Brock Osweiler, the 6-foot-8 behemoth, and head coach Dennis Erickson are gone for Taylor Kelly and Todd Graham, respectively.

“He looks to run,” Illinois defensive lineman Akeem Spence said of Kelly. “If his first read is not there, he’s going to tuck it, take off and run. He’s a lot more mobile, and when (Arizona quarterback Michael Eubank) comes in, he’s about 6-6, and he looks pretty big, so we have to be ready to chop him down, too.”

Getting pressure on the quarterback was the key in last season’s matchup for the Illini, who recorded six sacks and added pressure that led to two interceptions.

“This is a different Arizona State team, and we’re a different Illinois team,” Beckman said. “Anytime defensively wise, it’s about putting pressure on the quarterback, affecting the quarterback as much as you can. Our front four’s gonna have to do their job.”

Illinois will also need to move the ball better on offense after struggling in the second half last Saturday, accumulating just 20 yards “after Scheelhaase left the game”:

Beckman said his focus for this game is getting the ball to some of his playmakers on offense, including having his receivers more involved and trying to get his running backs in more space.

The players on defense have said all week that it doesn’t matter who lines up under center at quarterback to them, and they have confidence in all three. The defense probably has the most confidence in its ability to contain the Arizona State offense.

_Jamal can be reached at [email protected] and @JamalCollier._