Illini defense holds up in the red zone

After a week full of speculation and doubt spurred by the Illini defense surrendering 407 yards and 34 points to FCS opponent Southern Illinois, the Illini again allowed more than 400 yards in week two.

Yet, after both contests, the Illini defense hung its hat on what it didn’t give up: easy red zone touchdowns.

Clinging to an eight-point lead against the Salukis, the Illini were backed up to their own 3-yard line with less than a minute left; however, Southern ran out of downs when quarterback Kory Faulkner sailed a pass out of the back of the end zone on fourth down — clinching the victory for the Orange and Blue.

Against Cincinnati on Saturday, the Illini defense again found itself backed into its own goal posts — this time with a 21-point lead right before halftime. After seven plays inside the 10, aided by a pass interference penalty, the Bearcats punched home a touchdown with just eight seconds remaining in the half.

“It hurt going into halftime,” linebacker Mason Monheim said. “I really thought we were going to get that stop.”

The Bearcats notched a quick field goal right after halftime to bring the score to 21-10, as well as to bring back demons the Illini have experienced with second half collapses. After an Illini three-and-out, the team’s second in as many possessions, Cincinnati quarterback Munchie Legaux connected on passes of 11, 14 and 32 yards to bring the Bearcats to the 4 yard line.

The Bearcats plunged up the middle for three yards to put the ball at the one before the Illini locked up. Jonathan Brown and Austin Teitsma stuffed a run for no gain on second down. On third down, Legaux’s pass was deflected at the line, bringing up a do-or-die fourth down.

Defending the north end zone, Brown and other defenders turned and rallied the Block I student section to a fever pitch. On fourth down, Legaux scrambled left and was hit right at the goal line by Earnest Thomas III, mustered a second effort and appeared to break into the end zone before Monheim and Mike Svetina barreled into the pile to force him back. Legaux didn’t have the ball after the scrum cleared, but the Bearcats were celebrating nonetheless.

The officials ruled a touchdown on the field, and during the video review, two camera angles would determine the outcome of the play, though it may as well have been the game. Both officials and fans strained their eyes to try and catch a glimmer of “indisputable video evidence” one way or another, but no obvious call was to be found.

After the review, head referee John O’Neill announced that Legaux had indeed fumbled before the goal line and since the ball was advanced into the end zone illegally on the fumble, Illinois would control the ball at its own 1-inch line.

“That was huge. Our defense was great in the red zone all day long,” quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse said. “We had them down there six, seven, eight plays down before the half and I think they did everything they could to get into the end zone … We knew they were in trouble because they had already shot off a lot of bullets at that point.”

The rest was a foregone conclusion. The Illini offense rediscovered its mojo and plowed 99 yards over 12 plays to a touchdown and completing the 14 point swing. The Bearcats never recovered, and the Illini would pile up points of their own en route to the 45-17 victory.

“That’s something I’m really proud of my guys for,” Brown said. “They had 400 yards, but we stood up when it mattered.”

Even after allowing 456 yards, with 308 coming through the air, the Illini defense — for the second week in a row — did just enough to tally the only number they care about: a second win in as many games.

“We need to have that mentality, that they’re not going to get into our end zone,” Monheim said.

Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and @steve_bourbon.