This Illinois team refuses to rest.
Fresh off a bye week, the 17th-ranked Illini went into Lincoln and came away with their sixth straight win. After a shaky start, Illinois allowed just one Nebraska first down in the final 40 minutes of game action to cruise to another Big Ten West victory.
So many things have gone right for Illinois this season that have been discussed at length. Tommy DeVito continues to play with poise and confidence at the quarterback position. Chase Brown gets out of bed and runs for 100+ yards each week. The defensive line’s dominance is a revelation that has been well-documented.
But we need to talk about the Illini secondary.
This is a group of guys that have been turned from relatively unknown prospects coming out of high school to one of the best units in all of college football.
The Illini currently hold the top pass efficiency defense in the country. They’ve had at least one interception in all 8 games this season and lead the nation overall with 15 picks. Among everything this Illini team is doing to have success, the play of their defensive backs may be the most overlooked yet most important because these guys have been playing at a historic level.
Let’s take a look at some of the stars of this defensive backfield, how they played in Lincoln, and the success they’re having overall.
Any conversation about the Illini secondary — and even the defense in general — has to start with Devon Witherspoon.
Witherspoon was an UNRANKED prospect coming out of Pine Forest High School in Pensacola, Florida, committing to the Illini very late in the 2019 class as his only Power 5 offer.
Now, he’s the first Illinois player to be a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist (the award given to the top defensive back in college football) since Vontae Davis in 2008. That’s a 2-time Pro Bowler who had a 10-year NFL career.
Safe to say that honor is extremely well deserved with a resume like this:
And those numbers should get an even bigger boost after the work Witherspoon put in against the Huskers.
Coming into the game, a lot of talk was centered around the matchup between Witherspoon and Nebraska WR Trey Palmer, the Big Ten’s leading receiver coming into Week 8 play.
Palmer’s line on Saturday afternoon? 6 targets, 1 catch, 1 yard.
Quan Martin, who I’ll get to very shortly, helped that effort when Palmer was lined up in the slot, but it was primarily Witherspoon who made life miserable for him all afternoon. He’s proving to be a true shutdown cornerback and a guy you can count on to erase the other team’s top weapon every Saturday. It can’t be stated enough how valuable that is for a defense.
This coaching staff has unlocked a gem in Quan Martin.
The 3-star defensive back from the 2018 class struggled to find his role in the early years of his career but is playing at an extremely high level as a versatile weapon for the Illinois defense.
Martin’s unique skillset allows him to play multiple different spots in Ryan Walters’ defensive scheme from nickel corner to more of a field safety role. Whatever he’s been asked to do this season, he’s done it at an extremely high level and did so once again on Saturday against Nebraska.
Here’s Martin obtaining great position matched up with Palmer one-on-one and getting a gift from QB Casey Thompson as a result:
Everybody on this Illinois defense is extremely physical and even Martin’s 6-foot, 195-pound frame is no exception. He lifted RB Anthony Grant completely off the ground on a tackle to force a fumble in the fourth quarter:
Quan made himself some money in Lincoln.
Undoubtedly, the star of the game against Nebraska was Sydney Brown. The lesser talked about Brown twin finished with 6 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions on the day and was all over the field.
Brown is another example of an extremely low-rated 3-star recruit, with Illinois as his only Power 5 offer out of high school, who is now playing at an All-Big Ten level. (Credit to Lovie’s staff where credit is due.)
Brown’s been a mainstay of the Illini secondary for a while now but it’s clear he’s playing his best football in his final year. Ryan Walters has seemingly instilled confidence in him unlike anything he’s had during his time at Illinois and has allowed him to thrive as an ultra-important piece to his nationally dominant defense.
His natural ball skills give him constant chances to make plays, just like we saw here as he takes advantage of a poor decision by Nebraska QB Chubba Purdy for an interception:
He’s always been a good, physical tackler when playing in the box and displayed it numerous times on Saturday, including a couple of phenomenal open field tackles.
Taz Nicholson, Kendall Smith, and others have also come in and played high level football to supplement these three.
One thing we know for sure is that Ryan Walters has all the trust in the world in his secondary and will continue to put his guys in one-on-one matchups with no fear in their ability. Us vs. you. And guess what, we’re going to win more times than not.
Illinois is going to keep winning because of it.