Illinois Loses Its Defensive Identity
DAVID MERCER, Associated Press
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks says he’s never been around a team that has as much trouble creating turnovers as his Illini. And he says there no one thing that can fix that problem.
“Man, I’d be one rich guy If I had the patent on that,” Banks said.
He could have been talking about the larger question of what ails the Illini defense. There is no one problem, no one button to push — or even two or three.
First are those turnovers. Illinois has five through six games, last in the Big Ten. The Illini are last in quarterback sacks, too, with five. Illinois is 11th in the 12-team Big Ten in yards allowed at 454.5 a game.
And then there’s the bottom line: The Illini (3-3, 0-2 Big Ten) are giving up 32.2 points a game. Wisconsin flirted with 60 while pounding the Illini Saturday night, 56-32.
“We all know that we’ve got to get better on defense,” coach Tim Beckman said Monday. He’s repeated for weeks his list of defensive shortcomings, with bad tackling, youth and lack of depth among them.
With Illinois’ offense scoring 35.3 points a game, a team whose identity two seasons ago was defense first has flipped completely.
The 2011 Illini had the seventh-best defense in the country, finished fourth against the pass and 21st in scoring defense. Those Illini had the nation’s top pass-rusher in defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who led the country with 14 1/2 sacks.
That’s one of the problems with this team, Banks said. The line doesn’t have anyone like that.
“If you don’t inherit them, you’ve got to develop them,” he said. “It does take time, it really does.”
So with Michigan State (6-1, 3-0) coming to town Saturday, the Illini will keep working on those other areas.
Banks said he and his staff will continue doing what they’ve been doing to try to will some turnovers out of the defense, coaching players to look for opportunities to punch balls free or tip passes. He said they’re missing those chances now.
Linebacker Jonathan Brown, the team’s leading tackler and a veteran of that 2011 defense, said the defense works daily on creating turnovers. And in practice, he said, it works.
“It’s just not translating in the game,” he said.
The Illini leaned heavily on the blitz against Wisconsin to pressure the quarterback and also control running backs Melvin Gordon and James White.
Illinois sacked Joel Stave once and hurried him once. Gordon and White? They combined for 240 yards rushing and five touchdowns.
“We put in and tried as much pressure as we possibly could in the second half,” Beckman said. “We blitzed 27 out of 36 plays. We still have got to be able to get off blocks and make tackles.”
Giving up 56 points makes a player think hard about what’s going wrong and how to change it, Brown said. Saturday night was one of those nights, he said.
“We know where we’ve been getting hurt,” he said. “If we keep working, it’s going to get there. I know y’all are probably tired of hearing that. It just takes time.”
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