Oh, what a night: Illini flex their muscle

Oh, what a night: Illini flex their muscle

Hear from Illini great David Williams Monday at 5:10 on WDWS.

CHAMPAIGN — Lovie Smith stressed heading into Saturday night's game against Western Kentucky that the second week of the season would be where his young team would show the most improvement.

The Illinois coach turned out to be prophetic — particularly when it came to his defense. The Illini picked up where they left off at the end of their season-opening win against Ball State, bottling up the Western Kentucky offense en route to a 20-7 victory and an unbeaten 2-0 start to the season.

"You should see a lot of second game improvement — especially when you have a young ball club like we do," Smith said. "They're being put in situations that are new to them each week, but, again, they stepped up to the plate and are taking advantage of it."

Like the Week 1 victory against Ball State, this one was sparked by a takeaway. The Illinois coaches and players couldn't have emphasized winning the turnover battle more during the five-week buildup to the season, and Julian Jones' interception return for a touchdown sent the Illini into halftime leading by 13 following a sluggish start by the Illinois offense.

"That's very big," said freshman cornerback Nate Hobbs, who made his first career start Saturday night. "Our defense, we thrive on our three-plus turnovers and being 70 percent on third down. That's what we did today for the most part."

Illinois bettered that second mark — stopping Western Kentucky on 83 percent of its third down tries — and came close to the first. A fumble recovery by Jamal Milan and Jones' interception gave the Illini two takeaways for the second straight game.

"Guys who have been around us know how much we preach (takeaways)," Smith said. "But guys believe it, and they know that's how you change games. We're on record now about what it has done to help us win football games. Now, everyone wants to get involved and make a big play like that. Our first goal on defense is to score — just like it is on offense.

"Most of of my time in coaching, you have a great chance of winning when you can get one defensive score. That was big to finish up the (first) half that way."

While the Illinois offense picked up in the second half, Saturday night's win belonged to the defense. The Illini held Western Kentucky to just six net rushing yards and kept prolific Hilltoppers quarterback Mike White largely in check. He struggled to stretch the field vertically and saw most of his completed underneath routes bottled up quickly.

The latter was a marked improvement by the Illinois secondary, which again played three freshmen most of the game in Hobbs, cornerback Tony Adams and free safety Bennett Williams.

"You look at video and then you start making adjustments from there," Smith said, mentioning the expected second game improvements again. "It helps when you're getting pressure. The quarterback can't stand back there for a long period of time."

That pressure came from an equally young defensive line. Bobby Roundtree led the Illini with two sacks, giving the freshman defensive end three through the first two games. Fellow freshman Isaiah Gay played opposite Roundtree and added a quarterback hurry.

"I knew (White) was comfortable in the pocket, so getting him out of his comfort zone was a must," Gay said. "Defense changed the game a lot. Scoring points on defense is always good for the team when the offense is struggling. When the defense gets to scoring, that puts momentum on the offense and we can get the ball rolling."

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Moonpie wrote on September 10, 2017 at 8:09 am

A win's a win. No doubt. Good for the players.

But 20-7 is not really a butt kicking against a non-Big Ten team that has lost some of last season's offensive firepower.

Gee--just a brief mention that we are playing a few freshmen. That will resurface big time with the next loss.The alibi has been established.

Are there at least four more wins on the schedule? We'll see.The hard part hasn't arrived yet.

And for now, I'm sure that Prehisoric Tate's column will demand lockstep blind adoration for Lovie Dovie Savior Man.

But don't forget--freshmen freshmen freshmen!


Moonpie wrote on September 10, 2017 at 9:09 am

And: Crouch finished 14 of 25 for 107 yards and an interception for Illinois.

No offense. Soon it will be time again to dust off the alibi.

RatDog wrote on September 10, 2017 at 11:09 am

Wow, they can beat a community college.

What is the cost of all those stupid fireworks? Guess I shouldnt ask. The cost will be zero when they start playing big ten teams.

illinifaningeorgia wrote on September 10, 2017 at 7:09 pm

Amazing what a couple of wins (and bad losses by NU and Rutgers) can do for a team.

We're now the 12th best team in the B1G according to Teddy Greenstein's ranking of the conference teams in the Chicago Tribune.

Hey, it's progress.