Lack of Illinois defense leads to Washington victory

CHICAGO — After rushing for 67 yards on 17 attempts in the first half against Illinois on Saturday, the Washington ground attack came out and punched the Illini in the gut to start the second half.

Leading 10-3 at Soldier Field, the Huskies received the second-half kickoff and ran the ball right through the Illinois defense for 75 yards and a touchdown in seven plays.

Running back Bishop Sankey broke runs of 25 and 22 yards on the possession. Sankey took five of the handoffs and backup Jesse Callier took two. Sankey finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown, with the extra kick making it 17-3 in the Huskies favor.

“We had seen that on film,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said of Washington’s strategy to emphasize the run coming out of halftime. “They did the same thing to Boise (State) two weeks ago. We were prepared for it.

“They did a good job running the ball. We didn’t tackle well. It’s something we’ve got to clean up.”

Poor tackling was the one thing every defensive player or coach on the Illinois side mentioned after the game.

“We’ve just got to wrap up,” safety Earnest Thomas III said. “The one thing that will help with that is everyone going to the ball on defense.”

There were a number of times throughout the game when Washington quarterback Keith Price got the ball to a Huskie wide receiver in open space and the receiver made an Illini defender whiff on the tackle.

Thomas recalled one tackle he missed near the goal line that led to a touchdown to put the Huskies up 31-10 in the third quarter.

“It’s a play that I’ve made numerous times,” Thomas said. “I probably got a little lazy on it. I’ve got to keep my fundamentals and make that play. My team’s counting on me. They know I can make that play 99 times out of 100.”

Head coach Tim Beckman wasn’t happy with the tackling, and he wasn’t happy with the 615 yards of total offense that his defense surrendered.

“I thought our conditioning showed,” Huskies head coach Steve Sarkisian said of the second half. “Our guys are in great shape and they played hard. I thought Bishop Sankey was a warrior again tonight.”

Sankey finished the game with 211 yards rushing and added another 63 receiving. He scored the touchdown to open the third quarter and had another score receiving.

But it wasn’t just the ground game that dismantled the Illini. Price picked apart the secondary for 342 yards through the air. He completed passes to nine different receivers. Jaydon Mickens caught eight passes, including a touchdown, and Kevin Smith led the way with 104 yards.

The Huskies ran 85 plays from scrimmage, a pace Illinois hadn’t seen all season. But linebacker Jonathan Brown didn’t think it was the pace that affected the Illini defense.

“We had been working all week in practice,” Brown said. “I think in practice we had been going faster than they actually were. It was just execution.”

Brown finished the game with 15 tackles and a sack. Cornerback Eaton Spence added 14 tackles and linebacker Mason Monheim had 12. But it was the tackles that weren’t made that had Illinois defenders scratching their heads after the game.

“We’ve just got to keep our focus level up,” Thomas said. “They didn’t do anything that we hadn’t seen before. It comes down to focusing on the fundamentals.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.