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Tim Banks’ defense will be on hot seat when Illinois plays Western Kentucky

In this April 12 2014 phoWestern Kentucky quarterback BrandDoughty prepares throw pass during practice Houchens-Smith Stadium Bowling Green Ky. (AP

In this April 12, 2014 photo, Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty prepares to throw a pass during practice at Houchens-Smith Stadium in Bowling Green, Ky. (AP Photo/Daily News, Alex Slitz) ORG XMIT: KYBOW101

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Updated: October 5, 2014 7:48AM

Got Western Kentucky offensive coordinator Tyson Helton on the phone Wednesday, wanting mainly to know one thing.

Why the heck hasn’t this guy ­retired yet?

Helton, 37, is in his first year at WKU — which plays Saturday at Illinois — and is a first-time coordinator. In his debut last week, he watched his quarterback, senior Brandon Doughty, complete 46 passes for 569 yards and six touchdowns as the Hilltoppers blew out defending MAC champion Bowling Green. A litany of school single-game offensive records fell in the process.

It’s the perfect time, isn’t it, for Helton to hang up his whistle? Surely he’ll never have a better three-plus hours, not even if he coaches for as long as his father, former longtime NFL assistant and current UAB offensive coordinator Kim Helton.

“Yeah, well, even a blind squirrel gets a nut sometimes,” the younger Helton said of a 59-point explosion that has to worry even the most ­optimistic Illini fans.

Hmm, a blind squirrel. That calls to mind Week 2 of Illinois’ 2013 season, when what proved to be a terrible defense had a surprisingly stellar day against heavily favored Cincinnati. The Bearcats were coming off a 42-7 romp over ­Purdue, but they were smacked around 45-17 by the Illini.

Helton was on Cincinnati’s staff last year and remembers it all too well.

“It was frustrating,” he said.

For Illinois’ coaching staff, particularly defensive coordinator Tim Banks, it was anything but. As things turned out, it was the high point of the season.

By the time those Illini wrapped up a 4-8 campaign, Banks’ job status was being publicly debated. The Cincinnati game wasn’t the last sign of life from Banks’ defense — it hung tough in an overtime defeat at Penn State and carried the day in the lone Big Ten victory, at Purdue — but the Illini “D” became known for a few things, none of them good. No pass rush. No turnovers created. Awful tackling.

That makes Saturday’s date with the Hilltoppers awfully big for Banks and his crew. Banks watched Doughty’s performance in the opener and says he didn’t see a single bad throw. He calls Doughty’s wide receivers, led by Taywan Taylor, as good a group as any the Illini will face in the Big Ten. It’s another Week 2 chance to show what they can do against a dynamic group of skill players.

“We understand every week we’ll be judged based on how we play,” Banks said. “If we go out and play again, life will be good.”

But the Hilltoppers — who won eight games last season under then-coach Bobby Petrino — are a confident group, especially on offense.

Said Taylor of Doughty’s record-shattering opening act, “We expect him to do that week in and week out.”

A Big Ten defense — even Illinois’ — is a step up physically from a MAC defense. Are the Hilltoppers capable of doing to the Illini what they did to BGSU?

“No doubt,” said tight end Mitchell Henry. “It doesn’t really matter who we’re playing. Hopefully, ­everything will [be] clicking.”

For Illini coach Tim Beckman, this game is pretty close to must-win. For Banks, it’s certainly must-look-good.

“I don’t think about it that way, to be honest with you,” Banks said. “I think more about trying to make sure we get the best out of our ­players.

“But I will say this: I think my best years are still ahead of me.”


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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