How did it take only two games for everyone to forget how capable this defensive system is?
Well, 62 combined points and 955 total yards allowed is the short answer.
The defense was expected to be one of the best in the Big Ten yet again this season, but sub-par performances in each of its first two games left fans wondering what changes happened to cause this drastic of a decline from last season’s No. 1 scoring squad.
It probably sounds like a broken record by now, but Devon Witherspoon, Sydney Brown and Quan Martin were everything to this team. They were the heart and soul of a defense that was hungry to make a name for itself last season, and it did so in legendary fashion.
I mean, you remember some of those hits, right?
Devon Witherspoon committing murder in the state of Indiana pic.twitter.com/WWT6huwcEu— Nate Williamson (@NateJWSports) September 3, 2022
No one is underestimating the impact these now-NFL studs had on this team, but what people are failing to grasp is how impossible it is to fill the hole they’ve inevitably created.
At the center of it all is brand new defensive coordinator, Aaron Henry. He has arguably the most difficult task of any coordinator in college football: to prove — with the sources of leadership lost — that last year’s Ryan Walters-led defense wasn’t a fluke.
Finding success in a football program that hadn’t seen any in 14 years is an extremely impressive feat, but one of the hardest things to do in sports is to maintain that success when expectations arrive.
All of this (and more) is what was demanded of Henry when he took over Walters’ role to start the 2023 season.
Some early growing pains were expected in an inexperienced secondary, but it was meant to be counteracted with the relentless pressure from a veteran defensive line that ranked near the tops of many national preseason lists.
However, against two very mobile, dual-threat quarterbacks, the defensive line was a non-factor. Both quarterbacks were given all day to throw the ball, and the few instances of pressure were thwarted by their abilities to scramble, resulting in big plays — 11 of which went for 20+ yards.
This rough two-game start was made more dramatic when the next matchup was Illinois and Henry’s biggest defensive test yet.
In a matchup that many believed needed to be a statement game for the new coordinator and his defense, neither one disappointed.
While the Illini ended up falling 30-13 to the No. 7 Nittany Lions, the score was not telling at all. Despite being on the field seven times in the first half and having an average starting field position at almost midfield, the defense forced multiple stops deep in Illinois territory — one being a goal-line stand from the two-yard-line.
“From a defensive standpoint, our job is to be an extinguisher,” Henry said. “Force field goals instead of touchdowns [or] force no points instead of touchdowns.”
A big part of keeping this dynamic Penn State offense at bay was the resurgence of the defensive line. Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph Jr. (“The Law Firm”) made a name for themselves wreaking havoc in opposing backfields last season, but it was Newton leading the charge on Saturday.
His six tackles (one TFL) were complemented by two hits on the quarterback, two pass breakups and a blocked field goal.
PFF gave #illini DL Johnny Newton an 89.8 PFF grade vs. Penn State, crediting him with seven pressures (the rest of the Illini combined for five pressures).— Jeremy Werner (@JWerner247) September 17, 2023
Through 3 games, Newton leads P5 DL with 14 pressures this season
Draft stock : https://t.co/3kg2rfOBkE pic.twitter.com/X3B8eAhgQx
For his performance, Newton was picked to be on the PFF College Football Defensive Team of the Week.
The freshman leader of Penn State’s offense, Drew Allar, was all the talk heading into the game. With all his opportunities, Allar was held to 208 yards passing and no touchdowns while completing under 50% of his passes (16 for 33). Up until the last quarter, the dynamic rushing attack was limited to three yards a carry as well.
Henry loved that with all the chances Newton and the rest of his guys had to “lay down and quit and say, ‘Game’s over,’” they refused. Even when the game was out of reach near the end, they didn’t stop fighting.
“Johnny Newton could’ve came out of the game with 4-5 minutes left on the clock, but Johnny Newton didn’t want to come out of that game,” Henry said. “Johnny Newton wasn’t going to come out of that game, because that’s how he is wired.”
Henry has felt the pressure that each game in his young tenure carries, and he’s impressed that even experiencing a loss like Saturday’s doesn’t deter his players.
“It speaks to the kind of young men we have. Obviously we lost, but they don’t really focus on the scoreboard,” Henry said.
How can he make sure his players build on this momentum into the coming weeks? By improving one step at a time.
“If they have an opportunity to get better at their craft, they’re going to do that,” Henry said. “The goal is to continue to grow.”
If one thing is for sure after watching this team in the first three weeks, it’s that this season will require patience. We will continue to see plenty of ups and downs.
Why? Because every first-year coordinator who loses incredible talent will struggle to replicate what was built the year before. To expect anything else would be unrealistic.
Like Walters before him, it may take Henry a year to develop a defense threatening enough to truly compete in the Big Ten.
Or, the life his defense showed against Penn State could be a sign of things to come when Illinois faces weaker Big Ten opponents.
If you’ve made it this far, I congratulate you. You’re either fascinated by the points I’ve made, or you’re furious with me for what I’m asking of you.
I’ve watched Illinois sports for my entire life, so I know that when I say the words “trust the process”, I know I am asking a lot. Too many times have we been told about this “process” just to see it end in inevitable heartbreak.
However, we’re now in rarified air with this football program. Just a few years ago, it was hard to imagine it being surrounded with this much anticipation and excitement going into a season.
Instead of doubting the Illini, take a leap of faith. Trust that this team is in the right hands.
Trust the process.