CHAMPAIGN — Tackle better in space.
Stop the run.
Improve coverage on deep pass routes.
Get more physical.
Create more turnovers.
These are all points Illinois coach Tim Beckman, his staff and his players have made numerous times. In the last month. And will continue to make if the Illinois defense continues to flounder.
Wisconsin and its balanced offense have the capability to dissect an Illinois defense that could appear vulnerable again when the Badgers step onto the Memorial Stadium turf Saturday night.
Illinois has allowed 449 yards per game, second worst in the Big Ten. The Illini are also second worst in the Big Ten at stopping the run, a fact amplified this week with the conference’s best rushing team coming to Champaign. Ameer Abdullah of Nebraska and Bishop Sankey of Washington both topped the 200-yard plateau against Illinois this season. James White or Melvin Gordon could do the same Saturday night.
“They’ve got a two-headed monster, man,” linebacker Jonathan Brown said. “White is the more experienced guy, so he knows how the Big Ten works, but (Gordon) is explosive. If you don’t execute, that’s what gives them the big runs you see on TV.”
What people are seeing on TV and in person from the Illinois defense isn’t exactly eye-catching. The ability of Southern Illinois to move the ball at will brought about questions. Questions that weren’t answered in losses to Washington and Nebraska.
“Nebraska did a good job of putting some numbers out there,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “We’ve just got to do a better job of addressing some blocks, getting them off and actually tackle.”
Brown is among the nation’s leaders in tackles with 60 this season. Aside from that number, though, don’t expect Illinois coaches to harp many other defensive statistics to potential recruits. The numbers just aren’t very good.
Like takeaways. Banks’ unit has one interception and four fumble recoveries. The five turnovers forced has Illinois tied for 117th in the country with five teams, including former Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning’s defense at North Carolina.
“Coach has been emphasizing it in practice,” Banks said. “We’ve got to be more aggressive in terms of when the ball is in the air and going after it. We’ve got to be able to speed the quarterback up when he’s holding the ball. If he does hold it, we’ve got to hit him and force turnovers. That’s just what it is.”
Beckman’s coaching background correlates with defense. Not getting stops, interceptions or big tackles has left him exasperated at times this season.
“Of course you want them to play great on the side of the ball that you’ve been coaching most of your life,” Beckman said. “We’re extremely young. That’s just part of it. We have to get better. We understand that, and yeah, there is a little frustration because you want to get better.”
The Illinois defense isn’t inducing fear into its opponents. At least not yet. Here’s where the Illini stack up when you break down the stats.
Category National Rank
■ The four Illinois has accumulated are the fewest in the country. Or 20 less than Clemson has, with the Tigers taking down quarterbacks a nation-best 24 times this season.
■ Taylor Barton’s lone pick against Cincinnati is the only one so far. Kentucky, Georgia and San Diego State also only have one.
Passing efficiency 110th
■ However you break those numbers down (too long to explain here), Illinois has not stifled many quarterbacks this season.
Rush defense 97th
■ Southern Illinois is the only team to not surpass 100 yards against Illinois, which is giving up 195.4 yards per game.
Passing offense 89th
■ Only reason this isn’t higher is because teams have run rampant against Illinois.