This will be one of the toughest defenses Illinois has played all year.
Tim DeRuyter — in his third season as defensive coordinator for Justin Wilcox — has led an astounding resurgence for the University of California's once moribund defense.
Led by linebackers Evan Weaver and Cameron Goode, Cal ranked in the top-25 in defensive efficiency. Over the span of three years, DeRuyter has brought Cal from outside the top-100 defenses in 2017 to a unit that is extremely stout.
The base 3-4 defense creates pressure from everywhere, and has some great pieces with which to work.
Weaver led the Bears with 172 total tackles, and has the kind of range sideline to sideline that defensive coaches covet. He leads the nation in tackles (second: Dele Harding with 123). He's 20 tackles away from the NCAA single-season tackles record. Him and fellow linebacker Kuony Deng had 284 total tackles, best in the nation.
Goode led the team with 8.5 sacks, as the pass rush for Cal has markedly improved in the last few years. The linebackers are the stars, similar to Illinois, it's just a different style, with more stand up rush linebackers creating havoc outside. Vederian Lowe and Alex Palczewski need to be ready for exotic blitzes and stunts outside-to-inside.
What DeRuyter really likes to do is funnel everything up the middle to his trio of talented linebackers, and play his defensive backs man to man.
Unfortunately for Cal, their top safety, senior Ashtyn Davis won't be medically cleared to play against Illinois. It will be up to upperclassmen safety Jaylinn Hawkins and corner Elijah Hick to pick up the slack and try to contain Imatorbhebhe and Donny Navarro for Illinois.
This will be a tough test, but with a (hopefully) healthy Brandon Peters, this is a winnable matchup for the Illini. Don't underestimate DeRuyter and his defensive stalwarts. The first to 24 will probably win.
Here's the defense in action against North Carolina from last season to give you a feel of what they'll look like: