In the midst of a surprisingly dominant 45-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bearcats on Sep. 9, 2013, Illinois Fighting Illini freshman safety Taylor Barton quickly dropped to the ground and intercepted a Munchie Legaux pass which sailed far over its intended target's head.
Seven games later, at Indiana's version of Memorial Stadium, Hoosier quarterback Nate Sudfeld's scanning eyes missed the frame of senior linebacker Jonathan Brown, who promptly picked off his poor pass and returned it 16 yards, setting Illinois up to take a 28-21 lead on the ensuing drive.
And in Illinois' lone conference victory of the 2013 season, on the road in West Lafayette, junior cornerback V'Angelo Bentley sealed a 20-16 victory with an interception of Purdue's Danny Etling inside the Fighting Illini red zone.
The three instances above reflect every single interception the Illini defense had during the entire 2013 season. Just three, all year.
Through 20 minutes of the first half against Kent State, the Illini had matched their season total from two years prior with three interceptions: one by senior cornerback Eaton Spence, one by now-junior safety Barton and one by senior linebacker Mason Monheim.
Two of the interceptions, Spence's and Barton's, were tipped balls off the hands of somewhat open receivers that fell neatly into the secondary's breadbaskets. But when it comes to turnovers in football, you have to make some of your own luck, and the Illini did so.
Kent State quarterback Colin Reardon was frequently under pressure from the improved Illini defensive line Saturday afternoon. Only one Illini player left with a sack, LEO Dawuane Smoot, but the numbers belied the performance. Reardon is historically prone to chucking the ball away at the first sign of pressure, and Illinois was able to take full advantage of that tendency.
Two years ago, Illinois began instilling young starters with the knowledge of Tim Banks' defensive schemes after an experienced 2012 defense performed poorly under head coach Tim Beckman. The 2013 Illinois defense that followed would be one of the worst in the school's history, ceding yard after yard on the ground with no end in sight.
But the players got older. They grew more accustomed to the schemes and the funky hybrid positions. Beckman's staff recruited three-star athletes who could at least fill out the depth chart early in their careers — something Ron Zook had failed to do near the end of his time in Champaign. Young secondary starters Bentley, Spence and Barton became experienced veterans.
By the end of 2014, the Illini defense seemed to have perked up. Though inconsistent, the Illini were able to stifle awful Penn State and Northwestern offenses, even creating five turnovers against the latter, to make a bowl game. There were flashes of competence, and competence would be a major step up from what we'd seen through three years of Beckman-ball.
But there was never a dominant performance under Beckman. The 50-14 victory over Miami (OH) in 2013 was a blowout, but it was the offense which carried the day. Illinois forced zero turnovers in that game and still gave up 4.5 yards per play, despite the Redhawks' insistence on not scoring. The Illinois defense was good that day, but Miami still managed to move the ball on the ground. Kent State did not move the ball on the ground.
The Golden Flashes couldn't move the ball at all. Rob Bain and Jihad Ward were stout against the run, allowing linebackers to fly to the ball uninhibited. This was the only time in the Beckman/Cubit combined era when the Illini defense was fun to watch for an entire game. Even the back-ups got in on the action, holding Kent State to just over 100 yards and three points in over two quarters of work.
For the first time in years, Illinois has a defense that looks like it will be athletic enough to compete. Nobody knows what it will look like against the bulldozing offenses of the Big Ten, but there hasn't been a single Illini game like that one in quite some time.
However much you want to weight this game, it was nice to see the Fighting Illini completely overwhelm a team with athleticism. For the first time since Zook was in charge, Illinois made its own luck and didn't take its foot off the gas until the game was well in hand.
And now, for the numbers and nerdy, statistical analysis you crave.
Illinois tallied fourteen tackles for loss on Saturday, matching their highest total of the Beckman/Banks/Cubit era (14.0 against Texas State in 2014, a game in which the team gave up 35 points). Lest you doubt the above analysis, that Illinois thoroughly outmatched Kent State's level of athleticism and abused them on the line all day, I present to you Dawuane Smoot ending a man's college football career and perhaps his life:
This starting defensive line does not have a clear weak spot: not one of the four linemen is undersized, or too slow to play D-I football. They're all strong, and they're all skilled, though certainly not perfect. Jihad Ward had a rather quiet day, doing his job of holding the edge without looking like the all-world Hulk he was down the stretch in 2014. Rob Bain blew up plays by pushing his man three-to-four yards off the ball with ease, even blocking a kick.
Dawuane Smoot killed a dude and also blew up another play in the backfield, finishing with two TFLs. Chunky Clements is the least consistent of the four, and most prone to mental mistakes, but still provides solid push from the inside.
Kent State's offense certainly seems like a tire fire, so it's difficult to separate what Illinois did well from Kent State's players sitting in canoes and seeing whose lit match can drop into the lake of gasoline first. Without making too many broad proclamations, this certainly seems like a Big Ten defensive line. Cool!
The number of tackles made by linebackers who played with the first team defense on Saturday. In my list of 29 predictions for this season, here's what I said about Mason Monheim's potential for a fantastic senior season (emphasis mine):
Mason Monheim will lead the team with over 120 tackles. The fantastic mainstay of the Illini defense for four years now, Monheim should have a great season behind an improved defensive line that might actually be able to keep blockers away from him for the first time in his career. What a revelation that would be.
Through one game, the defensive line's ability to hold off blockers for even just an extra second was huge in allowing linebackers to flow quickly and decisively to the ball. Kent State ran a plethora of different option plays, and Illinois was well-prepared for all of them.
Illinois was clearly asking their optioned defensive linemen to take the quarterback out of the play immediately, which left an obligation to the linebackers to get outside (or in the hole) and bring down the running back. And with the defensive linemen locking down Kent State's offensive line, T.J Neal, Monheim, Eric Finney (3.0 TFLs!!!), and James Crawford were more than up to the task. Here's Ward and Finney playing an option to perfection:
One other player who stood out: LaKeith Walls, who played often with the first and second teams on Saturday. Walls ended the day with seven tackles to lead the team, and played his assignments defensively to a tee.
It's hard to overstate how well the linebackers were tackling in space on Saturday. Gaps were filled, assignments were executed, and the front seven looked like a cohesive unit.
I covered many of my thoughts regarding the three interceptions Illinois managed in this game earlier, but I still want to discuss the future of this team's turnover-causing ability given what we've seen through one game.
Four turnovers is fantastic, but as mentioned above, two of the interceptions were fast, decent passes that were tipped perfectly into the hands of Illini defensive backs. Monheim's pick was the result of a fantastic read of a quarterback whose eyes never wavered in targeting a slant route, but the other two were almost entirely luck.
The Illini finished the game having defended six passes, three deflections and three interceptions. Statistically, teams typically catch one interception for every five passes defended. So I don't think Illinois is magically going to have the turnover fairy on its side this season and pull in 15 interceptions. This team is not as good as it looked on Saturday.
But I do stand by a prediction I made before the season: because of luck regressing to the mean, and improved defensive positioning and athleticism leading to more opportunities, Illinois should finish the year with double digit interceptions. And that will be a huge upgrade over years past.
In case you missed it, The Champaign Room's favorite traitorous funny man Tom Fornelli discovered that Illinois has the best defense in the country:
THE MOST DOMINANT DEFENSE IN THE COUNTRY (amongst teams who played FBS opponents) pic.twitter.com/Ap0ujsuZKu— Tom Fornelli (@TomFornelli) September 6, 2015
Cool. While this is mostly an indictment of Kent State's offense, we must give a shoutout in this space to Taylor Barton and Clayton Fejedelem. Barton was one of Illinois' best performers on Saturday-- he finished with 2.5 tackles for loss from the safety position, which is rather insane, and didn't seem to miss a single assignment all day. Ditto for Fejedelem, who did a nice job of making up for Jevaris Little's blown coverage and ran down a Kent State receiver inside the Illinois five-yard line.
In summation, the Illini defense had a really good day. Please don't give up 400 yards to Western Illinois.
Ten different receivers caught passes thrown from the solid gold arm of Wes Lunt and the solid bronze arm of Chayce Crouch (sorry, Chayce) in this game. More than anything, this shows Cubit's willingness to diversify the receivers on the field at any point in the game.
The relatively unknown Marchie Murdock caught the second touchdown pass of the game on a beautiful wheel route (Kent State would later burn Illinois with a similar play). Four different tight ends saw significant time and caught at least one pass. Two true freshman got in on the action at wide receiver.
Cubit was mixing and matching however he wanted, trying to get everybody a significant number of snaps in a game that got out of hand quickly. There were drawbacks to his substitutions though: Wes Lunt wasn't quite in tune with some of the receiver's routes, resulting in a couple of missed throws and some off timing. Even Allison notably had a couple of drops, one on a potential touchdown catch.
Lunt was solid, the receivers were solid, and the pass protection was more than solid-- it was quite good. Perhaps the most encouraging part of Lunt's performance was his ability to move in the pocket, avoiding the few rushers who escaped the grasp of Christian DiLauro and Austin Schmidt.
71 is Illini center Joe Spencer's number and it's in this space because he probably ran more miles on Saturday than anybody else on the team. Spencer was put to work early and often, pulling and sweeping across the offensive line to lead block for tosses, counters, and other outside runs by Josh Ferguson and Ke'Shawn Vaughn.
Perhaps because Kent State's interior line is more highly touted than its exterior, Illinois was attacking the edge with aplomb. Illinois did have some trouble running up the middle when they tried-- Chris Boles was alright at left guard but had a couple of errors and didn't make much of a positive impact.
At running back, Ferguson was his usual impressive self. He looked very patient in this game, willing to allow his blocks to fully develop down the field before choosing a route. He also had one crazy reverse-the-field run that wouldn't work against a better team, but worked against this team and it was fun and cool so who cares.
Vaughn also put in a nice effort, showing really good vision on two runs where he split the defense to gain ~15 yards (one run was taken away due to a chop block penalty called on Spencer). It'll be fun to see his running style develop as he takes over the starting role next year and beyond.
Illinois' last drive to close out the reps for the first string offense was interesting-- Illinois ran the ball on eight of 11 plays in a 73-yard scoring drive to open the second half, methodically pounding the ball down Kent State's throat (with the help of a couple defensive penalties). It was encouraging to see the Illini have that ability for a drive. Lastly-- don't read too much into the yards per carry statistics for this game overall (3.7 YPC for Illinois) because it includes quite a bit of running the second team offense against KSU's first team defense.
Approximately 14.4-- that's the average distance of the Fighting Illini's seven first down attempts with the first team offense on the field, of which they converted one. The Illini were zero-for-five in the first half on third down, largely because penalties and negative rushes put them in holes extending all the way to third-and-26 and third-and-28.
This is a little concerning, because some of those negative plays came from the Illini offensive line getting pushed back a bit by an undersized Kent State defense. That's not something that can continue against teams with more strength and/or better athletes-- Illinois can afford to get in third-and-very-long when they're up by 28 against Kent State through a quarter, but that's not something that's going to work against better teams. Field position could make all the difference between beating Iowa on the road or losing by double digits.
Illinois had five plays of 20-plus yards from scrimmage, all coming from the passing attack. Some of these plays were quite reminiscent of last season: in Bill Cubit's offense, the Illini will often go to a shotgun, spread attack for methodically dinking and dunking the ball down the field with short passes. But when Cubit wants to draw up a long ball, he likes to go to a heavily protected, one-or-two wide receiver set from under center and throw a deep play action pass.
We saw this twice on Saturday, once a touchdown from Lunt to Allison and once a touchdown from Crouch to Mays. Illinois has the receivers to win one-on-one battles, allowing them to find explosive offensive plays from a formation typically reserved for grinding out yards. The Illini offense was successful, if a bit weird, on Saturday. I have a feeling there are plenty of plays we didn't see though, and likely won't until the road game against North Carolina.
SPECIAL TEAMS AND OTHER TANGIBLES
The Fighting Illini committed eight penalties for a total of 80 yards. This is flat out unacceptable, and probably the most concerning thing that happened on a largely fantastic Saturday. Illinois only had greater than 80 penalty yards once last season-- in the dumpster fire performance at Washington (110 yards). Those penalties were the main reason Illinois found itself in third-and-very-long so often.
Perhaps some of this is due to new things Cubit has implemented in the last week, but penalties can kill you against a stronger opponent-- whatever the reason for this happening, it has to be cleaned up before North Carolina.
V'angelo Bentley had 85 yards on just three punt returns this weekend. He is good:
Turning a bouncing, over-the-head punt into a 48-yard return, and very nearly a touchdown if not for a questionable tackle, is a pretty fun thing. Bentley was all over the field in all three phases Saturday. He very nearly threw a touchdown pass, leading Allison just a bit too far out of reach after receiving a quick dump-off from Lunt. Bentley also had another 38-yard return, when he juked a guy out of his shoes immediately after pulling in the punt.
This is more a personal note than anything: my favorite special teams player from last year, Jevaris Little (#15), was noticeably absent on kickoff and punt coverage on Saturday. Perhaps it was the absence of the suspended Caleb Day, forcing Little into the role of third-best-safety, but I missed seeing Little be the first one down the sideline to smash an unsuspecting returner.
Special teams players who looked solid to my inexperienced eye on Saturday: LaKeith Walls, Malik Turner, and Tre Watson. We'll see if any one of them proves as exciting as Little was last season, or whether the man himself returns to kick coverage if Day is able to return to his role as the third safety.
The number of true freshman who saw the field against Kent State, who all performed at varying levels of good to great. We've already discussed Ke'Shawn Vaughn's contributions, but three other youngsters proved they can contribute this season.
Desmond Cain was solid enough, hauling in one catch. Remember-- I had Cain moving ahead of junior Dionte Taylor over the course of the season in my preseason predictions post, so this freshman comes with quite a lot of hype. So far: Taylor has one catch for nine yards, and Cain has one for eight. Rats.
The other true freshman wide receiver who saw the field was Texas' own Sam Mays. Mays is GMo-lite, and in two years we might be calling him GMo-heavy. With the second-string offense on the field, Illinois ran a max-protect, one-man go route for Tyrin Stone-Davis, who failed to high-point a catchable ball, resulting in an interception. On the other end of the field, Illinois elected to run what looked like the exact same play, but with the freshman Mays out wide. The result?
Oh, yes. That is extreeeeeemely good football. Between Vaughn, Cain, and Mays, the future of the Illini skill positions is in good hands. Literally.
The last, least heralded debut came from defensive tackle Jamal Milan. Milan didn't make any incredible plays, but he more than held his own against a MAC offensive line-- encouraging for his projected playing time this season and beyond. Between Milan and redshirt freshman Tito Odenigbo, the loss of Teko Powell to yet another foot injury may not be quite as damaging as it seemed before the weekend. Both freshmen earned the opportunity to see the field a bit against better teams later this season.
Taylor Zalewski made his only field goal attempt of the day, a 43-yarder that he put through with relative ease. The game was already 35-0 when Zalewski lined up for the kick though, so there was little pressure to test whether the nerves that rendered him ineffective last season remain. Hitting the field goal at all is a good thing, but we still don't know whether Zalewski can do it consistently in an important situation.
Not encouraging was Zalewski kicking the football out-of-bounds on a kickoff. That just cannot keep happening, and it was part of the reason he had to be replaced with Reisner last season. As said earlier, field position is going to be extremely important against the better teams on Illinois' schedule. Letting the opponent start at the 35 for free is a brutally disappointing outcome when opening a half or following a score.