Tim Banks wasn’t the UI’s first choice as defensive coordinator.
But he earned his way to this position. His last of three Central Michigan teams — all of which defeated Northern Illinois — finished 12-2 with a 29-27 upset of Michigan State in 2009. And his last Cincinnati team (10-3 in 2011) defeated bowl qualifiers North Carolina State, Louisville, Pitt and Vanderbilt, and knocked five-win teams UConn, South Florida and Syracuse out of bowls.
When teams overachieve by going 12-2 and 10-3, it often means promotion for hard-working assistants, and that’s what happened.
But, defensively speaking, Illinois wasn’t supposed to be a building situation. Not with Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence, Terry Hawthorne and Jonathan Brown as the nucleus. Banks inherited a Vic Koenning unit that ranked No. 7 nationally and held UCLA to one touchdown in the first 59 minutes of a 20-14 bowl triumph.
What happened? Did injuries expose depth shortcomings? A changed system? Veteran players unable to adjust, or simply not buying in? Or a compilation of all these, coupled with the loss of three or four key members?
There seems to be no valid explanation for Illinois reaching the end of October and, counting wins against Western Michigan and Charleston Southern, standing not only 12th in the Big Ten in scoring, first downs and yards gained, last in returning booted balls and, heavens, also scraping near the bottom in key defensive categories.
It’s enough to make the fans run up a wall. And many have already passed the point of return.
Head coach Tim Beckman addressed the issues Monday and Tuesday, and his points of emphasis are as follows:
“The week off came at a good time (don’t they always?) because it allows us time to recap and self-evaluate on the things we as coaches and players have to do better. We have emphasized mental preparation, and the time has allowed our players to become more healthy. Jack Ramsey is a good special teams player and he’s back after missing two weeks. Terry Hawthorne (concussion) has full status again, and Jonathan Brown is himself after playing through a lot of pain (ankle).”
OK, what else?
“We showcased negative plays, both offensively and defensively, and we can see that success is only a step away. Much of the defensive breakdowns stem from missed tackles by players in position to make the stops.
“There are no major changes. We are sticking to our plan because it’s been successful in the past. We’re practicing the same way we did at Toledo, Oklahoma State and Ohio State. Indiana had a lot of problems last year but they stuck with the offense that Kevin Wilson has used for a long time, and it’s producing for them this season.”
Despite losing QB Tre Roberson, the 2-5 Hoosiers are nearly doubling the Illini output in points, 34.7 to 18.1, but have lost four games by four points or less.
‘This is a must win’
The UI’s two leading tacklers, Ashante Williams and Jonathan Brown, addressed team concerns this week.
“This is a must win, do or die,” Williams said. “If we lose to Indiana on homecoming, that’ll probably end our hopes for a third straight bowl.
“There’s been a lot of soul searching to figure out what’s happened, and to get everyone pulling together. We’re way better than we’ve been playing.
“As for injuries, a lot have been more serious than people realize, and the guys have been toughing it out.
“Coach Beckman has been tremendous through this. I like the way he runs the program. I feel if we play as a team and trust one another we can overcome when adversity hits. It always seems like there is a turning point and we get down and don’t respond. It’s not the system, it’s guys buying in.”
Turning to the Hoosiers, Williams said:
“Indiana often keeps its receivers on the same side and lines up quickly, trying to run plays before the defense is set. This is a faster tempo than we saw against Arizona State and Louisiana Tech. There is no time to substitute and it is very hard to adjust. They jump up and go and hope we’ll miss assignments.”
‘We lost confidence’
Brown, who reached the 12-member Butkus Award semifinals despite missing time due to an ankle sprain, called the off week “a good time for the body to recuperate. Nobody goes through a Big Ten season 100 percent. I’m good to play.”
Last year, with Brown and Whitney Mercilus combining for 42 tackles behind the line, Illinois disrupted opposing offenses to the tune of 421 negative yards. In the 2-5 start this season, the Illini have caught rivals behind the line for just 130 yards. Pressure on opposing passers has been noticeably weak, allowing 61 percent completions.
“This defense took some getting used-to,” Brown said, “and I’m getting more comfortable for where I’m supposed to be. I’ve been thinking too much and not reacting.
“We lost confidence in the Arizona State game (a 45-14 blowout) and it was compounded week to week. Now I feel everyone is on the same page ... better communication. If we work together, we definitely see an opportunity to go out and get some wins.”
Back in coach Bob Blackman’s time, the Illini lost six straight and won the last five in 1971, and a year later lost the first seven and then won three.
Crazier things have happened in sports, and do so repeatedly.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.