Illini defense riding high with North Carolina test ahead
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) For much of the past three seasons, defense was almost a dirty word at Illinois. The Illini were at the back of the Big Ten in almost every category.
Two games is a small sample, but so far this season Illinois has given up just a field goal and picked off five passes - close to the seven they intercepted all of last season.
Illini coaches and players said Monday they aren't kidding themselves. Saturday's road trip to North Carolina (1-1) will be a test of a different sort than Kent State or Football Championship Subdivision school Western Illinois.
''This week here, it's going to be tested because it's been fairly easy the first two games,'' interim Illinois coach Bill Cubit said. ''It hasn't been easy to accomplish, but nothing's really gone against us.''
Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora said he's been impressed by Illinois' defensive performance.
''Defensively they haven't given up a touchdown this year,'' he said Monday. ''So they're going to come in here sky high and feeling good about themselves, as they should.''
A look at the details behind Illinois' eight quarters of near-scoreless defensive football offers a long list of superlatives:
- The five Illinois interceptions are just two short of last season's seven (which was 11th in the 14-team Big Ten). And six turnovers put the Illini almost a third of the way to last season's total of 19 (eighth in the conference).
- Red zone defense may be the most telling - the Illini haven't had to play much of it. Kent State moved the ball to the Illinois 5-yard line late in the second quarter before settling for a field goal attempt that Illinois blocked.
- Illinois' first two opponents have averaged 193 yards of offense a game. That's second in the Big Ten for a defense that last season was dead last at 456 a game. And the Illini have been tough to run on so far, giving up 78.5 yards a game. Last season, they were last in the conference at 239.2 yards a game.
Illinois added Mike Phair as a co-defensive coordinator alongside Tim Banks in the offseason, and defensive players including defensive end Jihad Ward talked over the summer about a change in approach, playing more aggressive and thinking less.
Linebacker T.J. Neal said Monday that he and others are taking that simpler approach to the game, but he insisted that as far as scheme goes, this season's team isn't very different than last season's.
''It's the same stuff coach Banks has been doing the past three or four years,'' he said.
Cubit said Monday that the pair of relatively easy wins has allowed his defense to use its bench, getting many starters off the field early to avoid injuries and fatigue. But it also means that Illinois' defense hasn't had to stay on the field for an extended run of fast-paced plays like North Carolina is likely to throw at the Illini.
''Really, our (starting) defense hasn't played a whole game,'' he said. ''This week they played like a little more than a half.''
Neal believes Illinois is ready for the step up in pace and competition.
''The first two games were great, but I think this one will let everyone know the Fighting Illini's not playing this year.
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard contributed from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.