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Forced fumbles propel Jake Hansen to national spotlight

It’s “a Lovie Smith thing.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 06 Illinois at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When James McCourt drilled a game-winning field goal to propel Illinois to a win over No. 6 Wisconsin on Saturday, Illini fans and players jumped around on the Zuppke Field turf at Memorial Stadium.

As the dust settled over the following days, Jake Hansen was presented with some hardware following his spectacular performance against one of the country’s elite offenses.

Hansen forced another pair of fumbles against Wisconsin, bringing his total for the season to a nation-leading seven. On top of the fumbles, Hansen added 11 tackles and a sack — and was rewarded accordingly.

On Sunday, Hansen was awarded the Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week Award — the highest individual honor any defensive player can earn across all of college football.

The next day Hansen was presented with yet another award. This time, the Big Ten recognized his success.

“It’s big and it’s some fulfillment for the hard work you put in,” Hansen said. “It’s a blessing that I have been given the opportunity to get those honors.”

Hansen has also been hard on himself. He won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week last September after Week One, but said he has received a lot of negativity hinting that he doesn’t show up in the Big Ten games.

“That frustrated me,” Hansen said. “So that was motivating to be able to show up in a Big Ten game and against Big Ten opponents going forward as well.”

Hansen has finally got some validation for showing up against a conference rival, this time forcing two fumbles that led to touchdowns against the then-No. 6 team in the country. He was rewarded with both the win, and the accolades that followed.

His head coach — who loves turnovers and defense — is impressed.

“Jake Hansen’s just played outstanding football,” said Lovie Smith.

Hansen, one of the Illini’s 2019 captains, is considered by many one of the team’s finest leaders and sets an example for the underclassmen.

“I think that guys look at what you do not necessarily what you say. When people make plays people take notice,” Smith said. “Jake shows up on time, ready to work. You know what type of effort you’re going to get always.”

Despite the many critiques of Smith’s coaching style, one thing he has always excelled at is coaching defenses that force fumbles. There were the dominant Chicago Bears defenses of the 2000’s with Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. And there were the Peanut Punches via Charles Tillman.

And Lovie has seemingly been able to finally get that across in Champaign.

“I think in order to have an opportunity to do [force fumbles] you have to believe it first,” Smith said. “You have to buy in to taking the ball away, not wait for a turnover. You have to run to the football.”

And Hansen has done just that all year long.

Hansen is second on the team with 59 tackles, complemented by three and a half sacks, an interception and seven forced fumbles.

The Illini lead all of college football in fumbles forced and recovered, led by Hansen.

“You got to credit the coaches, it’s what they preach,” Hansen said. “I’ve been able to help us in that way and I’m happy to do that.

“I think I just try to take on the best mentality I can. The coaches have done a great job at putting me in position to make plays.”

It’s not just opposing offenses that have to deal with the Illini’s aggressive style of defense.

It comes across in practice, where Hansen works on his craft — with senior halfback Reggie Corbin.

“He tries to punch the ball out with me all the time,” Corbin said, “and that’s why you can’t get mad when he misses and hits you in the rib or anything, because eventually it will pay off.”

But it’s helping Illinois’ running backs too, according to Hansen.

And looking the other way? Well, no team tries to punch out the ball in games the way the Illini do in practice.

“I think that’s just a Lovie Smith thing,” Corbin said.