The Illinois defense opened some eyes in opener
By Herb Gould firstname.lastname@example.org September 4, 2012 8:14PM
Updated: October 6, 2012 1:55PM
CHAMPAIGN — After Illinois had dispatched Western Michigan 24-7, defensive tackle Akeem Spence entered the players’ lounge looking studious in glasses with large black frames that would have rated a thumbs-up from Buddy Holly.
Right behind him came linebacker Jonathan Brown, wearing the same frames.
“He took my swag away from me,’’ said a grinning Spence, claiming to be the eyewear trendsetter.
One game doesn’t make a season. But there are reasons to think the Illinois defense will keep opening eyes when it travels to Arizona State Saturday (9:30 p.m., ESPN).
“Illinois’ defense is special,’’ Sun Devils coach Todd Graham said. “Their defensive tackles and their defensive ends are very special players, and all 11 players are very explosive.’’
Even if you put an asterisk on Illinois being the nation’s No. 1-ranked rushing defense (minus six yards allowed) because Western Michigan is a passing team, the three interceptions the Illini gathered are tied for third in the nation and rate an exclamation point.
More important than the stats might be the ingredients the Illini defense has and the willingness of the defenders to do their homework.
“It was a lot of film study,’’ hybrid linebacker/safety Ashante Williams said of the key to his game-breaking 60-yard interception. “I knew those routes were coming. I kind of baited him into throwing the ball. I played outside, like we were going to play deeper coverage. Then, just before they hiked it, I slid in.’’
It didn’t hurt, either, that Spence, a 6-1, 305-pound load, and 6-6 defensive end Michael Buchanan — who tipped two straight passes, pulling down the second one for an interception — put heat on Broncos quarterback Alex Carder.
“We’re going to play to our strengths,’’ defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “We feel like our defensive line is one of our strengths.’’
Six seniors started against Western Michigan. And with end Justin Staples (suspension) and safety Supo Sanni (injury) expected to return, eight seniors could start at Arizona State. It’s a tight-knit bunch that shares more than eyeglass frames.
Illinois, which has issues at safety and linebacker, has to prove it can be a complete defense, especially in the Big Ten. But its foundation of defensive-line talent and all-around determination is a good place to start.
Last year’s Illinois defense did a lot of things well. It was second in the Big Ten in rushing yards (123.8) and sacks (41). A goal this year is to remain stout in those areas while improving on last year’s 22 turnovers — and the four takeaways in the opener is a good start.
“We’re showing we’re a strong defense that can create turnovers,’’ Buchanan said. “We were successful on defense last year, but we were never really good at creating turnovers. [Against Western Michigan] we were able to do that a lot. That’s one of the things we’re going to continue to do.’’
Buchanan, a senior, and Spence, a junior, are tracking to be productive NFL players, as is junior linebacker Jonathan Brown. Other Illini defenders, notably senior cornerback Terry Hawthorne and senior defensive tackle Glenn Foster, also have a chance to shine on Sundays.
But Illinois’ core of experienced and talented upperclassmen knows the best way to get there is to band together and get some things done this fall.
“We’re all working at it,’’ Hawthorne said. “We’re trying to stay humble and do everything right — do what we have to do to be the best in the country.’’
The other encouraging thing for Illinois was that it didn’t make any big mistakes. That’s a tribute to new coach Tim Beckman, Banks and the rest of the staff.
“Coach Banks made the game plan real simple,’’ Spence said. “And we’ve been together so long. You have to have fun when you’re playing this defense.’’
There’s no magic in the turnover formula, Hawthorne said.
“I tell everybody, I’ll meet them at the ball,” he said. “If everybody’s at the ball on every play, we’re partying at the ball. That’s our thing.’’