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Illinois’ defense is a well-oiled machine

Another Big Ten win and two Illini linebackers honored this week.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, Illinois earned its third straight Big Ten win of the season against Rutgers, which gave the Illini, and their fanbase, validation that this team is better than everyone thought five weeks ago.

It’s no secret that Illinois’ defense has pushed the team through the toughest games of the season. Defensively, Illinois knows how to put its team in a position to get great drives going. And in some cases, the Illini D takes matters into its own hands to score — on Saturday they had two touchdowns — giving the defense a total of five touchdowns this season, putting them at a tie with Mizzou for most in the country.

Early on in the year, everyone from media to fans scrutinized Lovie’s defense, and at his Monday presser, Smith commented on it,

“You guys [in media] were the ones who wanted us to change things defensively. We stuck with what we believe in,” Smith said.

And what he believed in ended up working, because the rest of the numbers, well they speak for themselves.

Two of Illinois top linebackers, Dele Harding and Jake Hansen both received accolades this week.

Dele Harding earned a well-deserved Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week nod, the first of his career. Harding had 12 tackles, one forced fumble and an interception in Saturday’s game over Rutgers. He leads the Big Ten in tackles and averages 11.7 per game. Harding is tied for second in the Big Ten in interceptions, with three, and also has three forced fumbles this season.

Smith touched on Harding not being added to the Butkus Award watchlist,

“He’s been playing some outstanding football throughout,” Smith said. “How can a player play like Harding has and not be on the Butkus watchlist? Trying figure that one out.”

Linebacker Jake Hansen felt much the same way as Lovie Smith.

“There’s not many players that have done what he’s done, so I think that was a little disrespectful to him but it’s not always about the accolades,” Hansen said.

Harding agreed with Hansen, saying it’s just a blessing to be able to play and it’s great to receive this honor.

“I gotta give credit to the team, it’s not just personal accolades,” Harding said.

Jake Hansen was also the last Illinois player to receive defensive player of the week (Oct. 21), but Hansen was named a semifinalist for the Butkus Award, which is ultimately given to the nation’s top linebacker. Illinois honored Dick Butkus with his own statue in front of its new facility in early October, so this award holds a special place for Jake Hansen.

“It’s a huge honor and trying to keep the linebacker U thing going,” Hansen said. ”Me and Dele have had long talks about this kinda stuff and it was just a matter of time before it was coming up.”

Illinois will be put to the test on Saturday against a solid Michigan State team, but the Illini are determined to get to a bowl game. Lovie Smith didn’t shy away from the game’s significance on Monday.

“This is the biggest game we’ve had here since I’ve been here,” Smith said. “Told the team that today, told the team that after the game... You don’t have to tell [the team] how big this game is, we know how big it is.”