Bradley Leeb
October 07, 2015

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) In a story Oct. 7 about Illinois' stout defense, The Associated Press reported erroneously that the score of the loss at North Carolina was 28-14. It was 48-14.

A corrected version of the story is below:

After 2 tough years, Illinois' defense delivering

Defense delivering for an Illini team once accustomed to having to put up big points to win

By DAVID MERCER

Associated Press

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - As he started explaining how Illinois rallied to knock off Nebraska last week, interim coach Bill Cubit offered a deep dose of praise to a unit that doesn't usually get much: the defense.

''If we didn't have the defense,'' he said, ''we're probably not sitting here talking like we are now.''

The Illini (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) managed to come back despite rainy and windy conditions and beat the Cornhuskers 14-13. Next up is No. 22 Iowa (5-0, 1-0).

Here's some of what Illinois did against Nebraska. Tommy Armstrong, still the Big Ten's passing and total offense leader, completed 10 of 31 passes for 105 yards and an interception. No touchdowns.

Gusty, swirling winds and waves of drizzle may have played a part, but the way the Illini have been playing gives every indication the defense had plenty to do with Armstrong's totals.

Throw out a 48-14 loss at North Carolina, and Illinois ranks with some of the Big Ten's better defenses, including the Hawkeyes. Nationally, the Illini are 23rd in scoring defense (17.8 points per game), 21st in total defense (303.4 ypg) and fourth in allowing third-down conversions (21.8 percent).

Tough to imagine from a team that had one of the nation's worst defenses the past two years, allowing about 35 points per game.

Cubit credits the secondary as his ''unsung heroes right now,'' and he's hoping the rest of the defense keeps improving. He says his defensive line is comparable to many in the league for the first time since he arrived in 2013.

There's defensive end Jihad Ward, a senior who often is double-teamed, on one side, and now there's 6-foot-3, 265-pound junior Dawuane Smoot on the other.

''Now you've got two guys off the edge, you've got a lot of one-on-one blocks,'' Cubit said.

Smoot leads the team with four sacks, and he and Ward have combined for 37 tackles. But the guys behind them have been the real beneficiaries. Linebackers T.J. Neal and Mason Monheim and safety Clayton Fejedelem are all in the top 15 in tackles in the Big Ten.

Smoot insists there's no particular magic in Illinois' improvement, just a commitment to stopping the run. The Illini in 2013 and `14 had a habit of giving up big running plays that often turned games.

''First, second down, that's what most teams want to do,'' Smoot said. ''They want to start the game out, control the clock.''

But the defense is also dominated by juniors and seniors, accustomed to at least trying to limit the damage and give the offense a shot at battling back the past two years. This season, those efforts are paying off.

Late in the third quarter last Saturday, Nebraska took over at the Illinois 31 after a short punt. A touchdown would have given the Cornhuskers a 17-0 lead and forced the Illini to score three times.

But Illinois shut the drive down at the 11 and Nebraska settled for a field goal.

Cubit called it the key drive of the game. Monheim said the experienced defense, once accustomed to buckling under pressure, never doubted it would get the stop.

''We don't get rattled,'' he said.

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AP college football website: collegefootball.ap.org

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Follow David Mercer on Twitter: (at)davidmercerAP

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