Rested defense could be difference for Illini
By Herb Gould email@example.com
HOUSTON — The bad news is, Illinois knows Baylor fans are going to show up in droves and leave the Illini the road team in their Texas Bowl meeting Wednesday at Reliant Stadium (5 p.m., ESPN, 560-AM).
‘‘We’re definitely the visitors,’’ coach Ron Zook said. ‘‘[Baylor] is 180 miles away, they haven’t been to a bowl game in a long time [since 1994] and they’re playing extremely well.’’
While Baylor sold its allotment of 12,000 tickets, Illinois has sold about half of its allotment. A crowd of more than 60,000 figures to be squarely in the Texas team’s corner.
The encouraging news is, Illinois has done some of its best work this season on the road. A 33-13 win at Penn State, Illinois’ first in seven trips all-time to State College, is the cornerstone of a season in which the Illini have doubled last year’s meager total of three wins. The Illini also went toe-to-toe with Michigan State in East Lansing for a half. And they came up with a memorable performance in their 48-27 win over Northwestern at Wrigley Field.
The big question, though, is which Illinois defense is going to show up?
Will it be the one that hung tough into the second half against the Spartans and Ohio State and held Penn State, Indiana and Purdue to a combined 36 points? Or will it be the defense that was torched for 130 points against Michigan, Minnesota and Fresno State as Illinois lost three of its last four games?
‘‘I don’t know,’’ defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said Monday after the Illini worked out at Rice Stadium. ‘‘It’s a mixed bag.’’
Sunday’s practice was a joy, he said. So was the last practice in Champaign. On Monday, though, his players were going through the motions.
What’s clear is that when two high-powered offenses clash, the defense that does the best job of damage control can be the difference-maker.
‘‘They know that,’’ Koenning said. ‘‘I read them stuff on the bus coming over here. But dadgum, if we have to give them a rah-rah speech going into this game, we’ve done a really poor job of teaching. And that’s ultimately what this is about.’’
Koenning declined to elaborate on his motivational reading material, saying, ‘‘That’s between us and them.’’
One explanation for Illinois’ defensive decline is that its key players became fatigued because of the volume of work they saw on a unit that lacks depth.
The hope is that with 26 days to recharge and prepare between the trip to Fresno State and this meeting with Baylor, the defense will be ready to go again.
‘‘Starting the season as fast as we did took a toll on our bodies,’’ linebacker Nate Bussey said. ‘‘This break really did help. It gave our bodies time to rest. This rest is giving us the power to get our momentum back, to finish the season how we started it.’’
In analyzing where his defense went awry, Koenning came to the conclusion that rebuilding his players’ confidence and allowing their bodies to recover would be the key to preparing for the Bears.
For safety Tavon Wilson, the approach has ‘‘helped us a lot more mentally than physically. In football, you have to play with energy and effort. There were some expectations out there, and we started looking to those too much, instead of playing the way we’re capable of playing.’’
Even a big improvement provides no guarantees for Illinois’ defense. Baylor’s 7-5 record may not look imposing, but it is averaging 32.6 points and ranked 12th nationally with 478.5 yards a game. And four of its losses have come against ranked teams — No. 3 TCU, No. 9 Oklahoma, No. 16 Oklahoma State and No. 18 Texas A&M.
‘‘I don’t think they’re going in with the idea that we’re going to stop them or shut them out. No one has,’’ Zook said of his defense. ‘‘We just have to go play the way we’re capable of playing, like we did the first eight games of the season.’’
It’s a subject that would give Koenning nightmares — if he could sleep.
‘‘I was laying awake at 4:30 this morning, worrying about this and that,’’ he said. ‘‘Can this guy do this? What’s going to happen here? It’s no different than being a parent when your kid goes off to college. You hope you’ve done a good job.’’
He’ll find out Wednesday night.