By DAVID MERCER
CHAMPAIGN — Whatever went wrong at Illinois last season, its defense was a frenzied, high-pressure group that sacked quarterbacks, dragged ball carriers down behind the line and was without question among the best in the country.
Most of the key players are back from that unit, but after Saturday’s 52-24 home loss to Louisiana Tech and a 45-14 whipping two weeks earlier at Arizona State it’s clear something has changed.
Tackles for losses are down from almost eight a game — fourth in the country last year — to five, and the Illini are averaging only 1.5 sacks — 81st in the nation — one season after they were sixth-best in the country with 3.5 per game.
Illinois isn’t blitzing nearly as much as it used to, defensive tackle Akeem Spence said as the Illini (2-2) prepared to open Big Ten play Saturday against Penn State (2-2).
“Last year we blitzed a lot more with our linebackers and this year, you know, they’re sitting back, and they’ve got to read,” Spence said. “We were able to bring pressure form just about anywhere, from the corners. ... We just brought it from a lot of different angles. That’s what we were used to.”
Players have asked the defensive coaches to consider blitzing more, he said.
“I mean, we ask, but at the end of the day they hold the power. All we can do is go out and do what they tell us to do,” he said.
Former defensive coordinator Vic Koenning’s defenses specialized in high pressure that led to sacks and big plays that regularly left opponents facing long yardage on second or third down. Koenning left when Ron Zook was fired, and the approach under new coach Tim Beckman and defensive coordinator Tim Banks has so far been more reliant, as Spence said, on reading and reacting.
Beckman said Monday that part of the credit for Illinois’ problems has to be given to the opposition — fast-paced spread offenses run by Arizona State and Louisiana Tech.
The Bulldogs forced Illinois to think about the run and use safeties to cover it, Beckman said. Then Louisiana Tech’s receivers ran wild, frequently finding space behind the Illini secondary and scoring on pass plays of 78, 38, 27 and 21 yards.
“They’re No. 3 in (the country in) scoring, they force you at times to play man-to-man coverages,” Beckman said.
Illinois is also thin at safety, with both Steve Hull and Suppo Sanni injured, but Beckman said everyone simply needed to play better.
Spence said he’s looking forward to getting into the Big Ten, where Illinois won’t see nearly as much of the spread.
“There’s not a lot of trickery like the past (few) weeks,” he said.