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‘The best is yet to come’: Illinois has eyes set on division title

This 7-1 team spooks its foes.

Brad Repplinger // TCR

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois just won its sixth straight game on Saturday against Nebraska and its fourth straight in conference play, solidifying the lead in the Big Ten West.

On the heels of another win, the Illinois coaching staff addressed the media in their weekly press conferences on a spooky Monday afternoon at Memorial Stadium.

Stars in the making

The win against Nebraska was rather stress-free once the second half started, with the backup QB-led offense only able to muster 19 total yards against the stout Illinois defense.

This defensive lockdown can be significantly attributed to the work of Devon Witherspoon and Quan Martin on star wide receiver Trey Palmer.

He came into the game as the highest rated wide receiver in college football by Pro Football Focus (PFF). However, after recording a whopping 237 receiving yards against Purdue, Palmer’s stat line on Saturday looked a little different: 1 catch, 1 yard.

“The secondary thinks ‘it’s what we do, it’s what we expect,’” said defensive coordinator Ryan Walters.

It’s a recurring theme for the Illini defense to hold an opposing star player to career-lows, as they held Wisconsin RB Braelon Allen to only two rushing yards in the win earlier this season. But we digress.

Another defensive star is none other than the Heisman candidate’s twin, Sydney Brown. After attempting to jump a route which resulted in the sole Nebraska touchdown in the second quarter, Brown made up for it and recorded two interceptions.

“Since I’ve been here this was the best I’ve seen Sydney Brown play,” Walters said.

Head coach Bret Bielema also complimented Brown’s incredible resilience and determination. He was impressed most by his words when being interviewed after the game.

“He said, ‘Our work’s not done. We still have a lot of football in front of us,’” Bielema said. “It just goes to show the demeanor of our football team.”

Brown’s performance helped Illinois force four Nebraska turnovers on Saturday. Walters stressed that he expects his guys to win the turnover battle each game.

“We’re trying to do whatever it takes to win games,” Walters said.

Potential CFP Ranking

The Illini are in the midst of a magical season, and they’re not stopping now.

After last weekend’s win, Illinois is 7-1 for the first time since 2001. In light of this success, the AP Top 25 ranked the Illini at No. 14, marking the program’s first top-15 ranking in 11 years.

On Tuesday night, the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season come out and the Illini will presumably be ranked in the top 15 of that as well.

“It feels good to be recognized for the work you’ve put in,” Walters said. “I’m proud of the product that they’ve presented up to this point.”

Regardless of where they are placed, it will be the first time in program history that the Illini will be in the CFP rankings. The poll originated in 2014, three years after the program was last ranked at all.

Bielema knows the magnitude of this news doesn’t just extend to him and his team.

“What it’s great for is the University of Illinois,” Bielema said. “It’s great for the fanbase.”

The first CFP rankings show will air Tuesday night at 6 p.m. on ESPN.

A Visit From Sparty

Michigan State comes to Champaign on Saturday following a loss against in-state rival Michigan, 29-7.

In what’s been a very underwhelming 3-5 season so far, the Spartans will need a big win to remain in the hunt for bowl eligibility. Despite their struggles, the Illinois coaches know they can’t look past this team.

“Got a tremendous amount of respect for what they’ve done,” Bielema said.

Bielema isn’t the only one who knows the dangers that Michigan State poses.

“I’ve been really impressed with their physicality,” Lunney said. “I think this will be one of the more physical [defensive lines] that we’ve played up to this point.”

But it’s not just the defense that presents problems for the Illini. Their offense creates some challenges that Walters pointed out as well.

“[It’s a] highly efficient offense,” Walters said. “Got a veteran quarterback that understands the scheme.”

That veteran quarterback he’s referring to is Payton Thorne.

“They give him concepts where he has to go through his reads,” Walters added. “It’s not like [a run-pass option] offense where they read one guy and throw it to one receiver.”

In addition, a couple of bigger targets makes the Spartans passing game dangerous.

“Those two guys on the edge are in my opinion the best combo of wide receivers that we’ll have faced so far this year,” Walters said.

The return to Memorial Stadium should allow the team to face those challenges better, though.

“Our players are excited to be back here,” Lunney said. “They’re excited to put together a good work week and be able to come play in front of our people.”

Kickoff against Michigan State is slated for 2:30 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network.