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Recap: Illinois (2-0) defense dominant in 20-7 win over Western Kentucky

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The young pups on defense came to play under the lights at Memorial Stadium on Saturday

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Well that was fun.

Despite being a touchdown underdogs in the second game of the season, the Illinois football team was impressive from the opening whistle in a 20-7 throttling of Western Kentucky on Saturday at home.

And for how much he gets criticized for conservative decisions, Lovie Smith’s gameplan was executed to perfection as Illinois controlled the field position and possession of the ball for much of the night.

The margin of error wasn’t indicative for how one-sided this game was. Illinois’ ability to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball was particularly impressive because of all the youth that Lovie Smith had on the field — Illinois started 7 true freshman in the game, which is a record for Illinois. The evidence? The Illini rushed for 193 yards and held Western Kentucky to only six yards on the ground for the game.

Through much of the first half, it seemed like Illinois was going to regret missing out on prime scoring opportunities as multiple trips into Western Kentucky territory resulted in a pair of Chase McLaughlin field goals.

Just before halftime, Illinois again couldn’t punch in a touchdown despite driving inside the Hilltopper 40-yard line, and Smith opted to punt, pinning Western Kentucky back at its 4-yard line. After an Isaiah Gay tackle for loss, Hilltopper quarterback Mike White floated a pass directly to linebacker Julian Jones who waltzed into the end zone for a 10-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Illinois hit the gas right out of halftime with a 15-play drive that elapsed nearly 7 minutes, capped off with a leaping rushing touchdown from quarterback Chayce Crouch.

The Illini defense continued to play well to close out the game and held the highest scoring offense from 2016 to 0 points until 11:38 remaining in the 4th quarter. The offense was able to do its part to help run down the clock in a picture perfect example of “Lovie Ball”.

Here are three things we learned from Saturday’s win:

This defensive line is the future...and the present

After losing seniors at each position along the defensive line last season, Illinois was forced to turn to young players along the line and the younglings have produced.

Isaiah Gay (all 215 pounds of him) put together another outstanding outing and fellow freshman Bobby Roundtree picked up a pair of sacks and forced a fumble which Jamal Milan recovered. Along the interior, Tymir Oliver and Milan plugged gaps. Again, Western Kentucky had 6 rushing yards. Six.

One area of improvement from last week is the Illini allowed Western Kentucky to convert just 2 of 12 third downs after Ball State moved the chains 12 times on third down against Illinois in the season opener.

Chayce Crouch is what he is

Much of Illinois’ hopes this season rested on the right arm of Chayce Crouch and after two games, it’s fairly clear what he does well and what his limitations are.

He was 14 of 25 for 107 yards with an interception (a poor decision that directly led to Western Kentucky’s only score), and rushed 15 times for 44 yards and a touchdown. It’s clear that Garrick McGee isn’t asking Crouch to do too much as a quarterback at this point because his accuracy is inconsistent and his decision making at times leaves something to be desired.

A read option with Crouch and freshman wunderkind Mike Epstein (who had 111 rushing yards on the day) is a fearsome attack going forward.

Get used to games like this

If you go through Lovie Smith’s coaching philosophy, it would probably look a lot like today’s game. This was “Lovie Ball” at its finest.

Illinois won the turnover battle 2-1 and held possession for nearly 38 minutes of the game. The Illini didn’t take many chances and opted to play it safe by punting to pin the Hilltoppers back and kept the ball on the ground while on offense.

Lovie’s defense was consistently able to get pressure without having to blitz and didn’t miss a beat when Tre Watson was ejected for targeting just before halftime. Smith’s teams will always rely on its defense and ability to run the ball to be successful, and they dominated those areas Saturday night.

So while the score might not indicate a blowout, the Illini severely surpassed expectations for their second win of the season. Illinois came into the game as home underdogs, with many fans afraid of a blowout from a Conference-USA team. They left it with a dominating defensive performance.