CHAMPAIGN — Their effort didn’t result in a win, but Illinois’ defense played well enough to win Saturday in the 17-3 loss to Minnesota.
The Illini yielded 309 yards of total offense and Tim Banks’ unit had the team in position to win the game until the Illini turned it over at their own 19 late in the game to set Minnesota up with a touchdown.
“I think the guys played hard, I really do,” Banks said. “A lot of credit goes to our seniors. It’s been a rough year, to say the least, but at the end of the day I thought they came out and they kept us in the game for the most part and gave us a chance to hopefully pull it out.”
Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson was limited to 78 yards passing and completed 9 of 15 throws. In his three starts prior to Saturday, the freshman quarterback was averaging 179 yards per game.
“We played as a team, as one, and we were pretty successful most of the game,” said freshman linebacker Mason Monheim, who had a career-high 15 tackles.
The defensive effort was encouraging for the players and coaches, but it wasn’t enough.
“Do I think we played better? Absolutely,” Banks said. “But when you don’t win, it’s hard to be satisfied.”
The Illini played Saturday’s game without the services of linebacker Jonathan Brown. The Butkus Award semifinalist, who was the team’s leading tackler entering the week, injured a shoulder in the first quarter of last week’s loss at Ohio State.
Another true freshman, Mike Svetina, started in his place.
“It’s a little intimidating, but at the end of the day I have a job to do, we all do,” Svetina said. “It’s just a matter of going in there, doing your job and letting everything else follow.”
Svetina’s seven tackles Saturday were two better than his previous high and he had plenty of help from Brown on the sideline.
“JB has been a huge role model for me,” Svetina said. “He’s like a big brother. I know I can go to him for any question I have. He’s been really good just teaching me a lot of things.”
On Illinois’ opening possession, co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty called a flea flicker, and the trick play resulted in a 49-yard completion from Nathan Scheelhaase to Spencer Harris.
“Trying to get them on their heels, we talked about it long and hard,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “We’ve got to be able to stretch the field vertically, early, to get them aware of it. With the receivers and some of the people we have, we might have to hit some of the quicker-game stuff. We’re not protecting, we’ve got to try to get the football out quicker.”
The Illini also used cornerback Terry Hawthorne for a couple of offensive snaps as a receiver, though he didn’t get an offensive touch.
“We had Hawthorne in there for a little bit,” Beckman said. “We utilized Justin Green, didn’t get him in, but we did use Terry. We used him to decoy first, then the next play was for him to go.”
The Illini are looking to find some explosiveness for an offense that had produced five offensive plays of 30 yards or more all season.
“We haven’t had a big play in a while, no question about it, a big play would be huge,” Beckman said.
One way Beckman has tried to provide a lift for the offense that entered the week ranked 115th in the country in total offense (301 yards per game) and 114th in scoring offense (18.44 points per game) is to get more involved in the game plan throughout the week.
It’s more during film study when breaking down the opposition’s defense. The coordinators, Beatty and Billy Gonzales still make the calls on game day.
“I’m not going to get involved (in play calling). Billy’s calling the third downs and Chris calls the rest of the game,” Beckman said. “Timmy Banks still calls the defense. I suggest and strongly urge some of the plays that I think can help them be successful throughout the game.”
Beatty said the input from the head coach hasn’t undermined him.
“We scored three points, we need all the help we can get,” he said.
The offensive line, which had allowed a Big Ten-high 32 sacks entering the game, has come under fire all season and did again Saturday after another lackluster showing.
One of the Illinois all-time greats, Tony Pashos, was at Memorial Stadium on Saturday after being honored for making a donation to the program.
Offensive line coach Luke Butkus isn’t the problem, according to the nine-year NFL veteran.
“I’ve seen his guys improving. I think fundamentally they’re gaining a little each week,” Pashos said. “If I have a son, I’d want Luke Butkus coaching him.”