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‘The focus is our next opponent’: Illinois hosts Iowa with a full head of steam

The big win is behind the Illini.

Brad Repplinger // TCR

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois just picked up the most crucial win of the season so far this past Saturday against Wisconsin in blowout fashion, 34-10.

In their Monday press conference at Memorial Stadium, the Illinois coaching staff reflected on the win and previewed the upcoming matchup.

A New Era

Illinois has experienced its fair share of firsts so far this season, and that trend didn’t stop on Saturday.

In the past two decades, Illinois football struggles were never more apparent than they were at Camp Randall. Dating back to their last win in 2002, the Illini average margin of defeat had been 21.5 points. Going into Madison was essentially a death sentence for the Illini, but now, things are starting to change.

With the 24-point win at Camp Randall, Illinois accomplished many milestones:

  • First win in Madison since 2002
  • Bigger margin of victory against Wisconsin since 1988
  • First lead in Madison since 2014

Offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. sees these continued milestones as a sign of improvement across the whole team.

“You should be getting better at this time of the year and we are across all positions,” Lunney said.

In light of the success in Madison, the Illini are attracting national attention. For the first time since 2011, Illinois is on the verge of entering the AP Top 25.

Despite all the hype surrounding the team, head coach Bret Bielema isn’t satisfied.

“We came here to be ranked,” Bielema said. “We came here to play at the highest level and win championships.”

No. 1 scoring defense in the country

Yeah, you read that right.

Coming into Saturday’s game in Camp Randall, the Illini were nationally ranked in the top 5 in multiple defensive categories. They were fifth in yards allowed per game (234.5) and tied for fourth in points allowed per game (8.0).

After limiting the Badger offense to only 10 points, the Illini have jumped four spots and stand alone at the top of the country. With only 8.4 points allowed per game, they stand over the likes of top-five powerhouses Alabama, Georgia and Michigan.

But defensive coordinator Ryan Walters and his guys aren’t even worried about that right now.

“Nobody’s really talking about it,” Walters said. “We’re still in the season right now; the focus isn’t on defensive rankings.”

Despite Walters’ humble approach, what he has done with this defense is nothing short of miraculous. He’s turned what was the worst defense in the Big Ten into a top-tier unit in the country in less than two years.

Saturday’s game was a prime example of this, as the defense only allowed two rushing yards (yes, two) against one of the top rushing attacks in the country. Walters gave a big courtesy to the defensive front.

“Can’t speak enough about the way those guys played up front,” Walters said. “They stayed the course through four quarters.”

This is a defense that came into the game with a lot of swagger, and Saturday’s win turned plenty of heads to what this defense is made of.

“They were confident going into the game,” Walters said. “Validation of their confidence was the result of the game.”

Another rematch

Throughout the season thus far, Bielema has stressed the importance of rematches to his players. After two of them, he hasn’t been disappointed.

Next up is the third of the seven rematches this season — this one coming against that dreaded team from Iowa City.

The Iowa Hawkeyes will be making their biennial trip to Champaign on Saturday, and the Illini will be looking to pick up their first win over the Hawkeyes since 2008.

Iowa is a very unpredictable team this season. Despite being held back by a very lackluster offense, having an elite defense allows them to compete against any team in the country.

Lunney knows it’ll be a challenge to score on the Hawkeyes.

“The greatness of their defense comes from the fact that they know their system so well,” Lunney said.

They also will have to protect QB Tommy DeVito at all costs, as the Hawkeyes have recorded 13 sacks so far this season. The offensive front will have to step up.

“We’re going to need all six of them to be at their best on Saturday,” Lunney said.

As long as the offense can do their job, the defense very well should be able to do theirs.

Iowa QB Spencer Petras only has 2 touchdowns on the season along with 2 interceptions. He also has a QB rating of 17.8, which is third LOWEST in the nation and 27th worst in college football history.

Regardless, Walters knows that he cannot allow his guys to underestimate anyone. He will continue to do his best to prepare them for the competition that lies ahead.

“The focus is on our next opponent,” Walters said. “We have to match intensity with intensity, match physicality with physicality.”