There is no doubt that Ryan Walters has turned this defense around.
Since the Virginia game, this team has kept opponents to under 24 points in 7 conference games and in 8 games total; under 20 points in 6 of those 7 games; under 14 points in 3 games; and under 7 in 1. In Lovie’s tenure this happened 16 times in 57 games, often against weaker out-of-conference conference teams or weaker Big Ten offenses like Rutgers or Purdue.
The revitalization of the defense begs some looking into.
Almost every player from the 2020 defense returned this year, and more importantly, key players like Jake Hansen and Milo Eifler, were either lost to injury or the NFL. This makes the following stats even more stunning.
On the baseline, you can see that the stats are really not that much different. Except in the Red Zone, Points Per Game, Opponents Yards Per Game, Third-Down Conversions, and Opponent Time of Possession. We can argue that the Virginia game is really an outlier in all of this. Leaving the stats from Virginia’s league-leading offense, these numbers really change, where Illinois is now holding teams to 19.3 points a game and 372.4 yards per game.
That is less than 3 TDs a game, which is phenomenal, knowing that the same roster last year, allowed an average of 5 TDs a game. This really is a large turn around.
What’s Been Done
We have heard this time and again, from Bielema and the players: Ryan Walters is a genius play caller. Moving from the box pre-Virginia down to the field did a lot. He listens to his players, disguises blitzes, changes the game plan to the teams that he is playing. We will see variations of the 3-4, 4-3, 5-2, and dropping 8 DBs depending on where and how the opponents are playing.
Gone are the days of Lovie’s stale cover-2. This team is keeping their man in front, getting to the ball and making plays. There is improvement to be had when the opponent ups its tempo and runs a no huddle offense like Rutgers and Virginia. But that can be worked on in the offseason.
Illinois, Bielema and Josh Whitman need to do everything to keep Walters on staff. I won’t be surprised to see his name popup for coaching searches like Florida, who just canned its DC.
Walters took a pay cut from Mizzou to come here; it’s time to pay up and keep him for the long run.