Lest you’ve forgotten, Lovie Smith’s third Illini team in 2018 allowed 63 points on three occasions and 54, 49 and 46 in other forgettable setbacks.
A defensive specialist, Smith could never get it right. Even with a COVID-19 outbreak causing cancellation of last November’s date with high-scoring Ohio State, the 2-6 Illini team permitted 34.9 points per game.
Way too many. Opponents had a choice: run or pass. Both worked.
So it is no small accomplishment that Bret Bielema has put a new, defensive face on the program, winning a historic 20-18 nine-overtime game at Penn State that is a sharp contrast to last year’s 56-21 season-ending road loss to the Nittany Lions.
After getting their feet on the ground, the Illini have given up (in regulation) 20, 13, 14, 24, 10, 20 and six points in seven straight Big Ten games ... with many of the same players who made up the porous unit last year.
And better yet — this is important — most of these suddenly efficient front-liners will have eligibility remaining. Like second-year tackles Keith Randolph Jr. and Jer’Zhan Newton, linebackers Khalan Tolson and Tarique Barnes and defensive backs Devon Witherspoon, Kerby Joseph, Sydney Brown and Jartavius Martin.
These eight have played starring roles — Joseph with four interceptions, Brown with nine tackles in the near-shutout at Minnesota, Randolph and Newton with physical mobility in the revised five-man front, and so on.
Suddenly, those selecting all-conference teams must take a hard look at Witherspoon, Joseph and heretofore unnoticed Illini.
Meeting of the minds
Oh, it hasn’t all been peaches and cream. The Illini gave up the lead in permitting fourth-quarter TD marches by Maryland, Purdue and Rutgers, two of them in the very late stages. To be fair, a little more offense — maybe a fourth-down success or two — could have reversed those narrow setbacks.
But it has been a magical defensive surge, and maybe we should we should look at the schemers.
Bielema rose as a defensive coordinator at Wisconsin. Illinois coordinator Ryan Walters handled Missouri’s defense the last three years. Associate head coach Kevin Kane spent the last five years as defensive coordinator at Northern Illinois and SMU, and linebackers coach Andy Buh has been a coordinator at Stanford, Nevada, Cal, Maryland and Rutgers.
All these fellows have run their own defensive operations before joining forces here. Keeping them together is critical for the future.
Building beyond 2021
On a related issue, Bielema found himself in a media fuss several weeks ago following his statement on the difficulty of finding replacements for the departing “super seniors” in the offensive line — Doug Kramer, Vederian Lowe, Alex Palczewski and transfers Blake Jeresaty and Jack Badovinac.
He pointed out that the 2018, 2019 and 2020 classes provided essentially no one recruited as an offensive linemen who has met his standards. The lone offensive line starter from those classes is Danville’s Julian Pearl, originally recruited as a defensive end.
Long gone from the 2018 scholarship class are Kievan Myers and Reuben Unije. Gone from 2019 is Richie Petitbon, a one-year transfer from Alabama. Leaving early from 2020 are Kevin Tyler, Phifer Griffin, Blaise Sparks and transfer Brevyn Jones.
Not falling within the three-year period is Alex Pihlstrom, a 2017 walk-on who has seen front-line action this season, and could return. Verdis Brown, a former starter on offense, was moved to defense this season. Also of note, 2018 signee Jordyn Slaughter, a promising prospect, was injured this season.
Showing promise for the future are several freshmen. Josh Kreutz, son of former Chicago Bears center Olin Kreutz, stacks up as a possible replacement for Kramer, and 300-pound freshmen Brody Wisecarver, Zach Barlev and Josh Gesky will receive a strong look. Barlev was part of the nine-man front that manhandled Penn State.
Bielema didn’t intend to throw anyone “under the bus,” but his comment raises doubts whether he believes scholarship squadmen Moses Okpala, Evan Kirts, Josh Plohr and Terry Zapf are ready for the line of scrimmage wars.
Thus, much of his emphasis during this bye week is scouring the portal for O-line prospects like Petitbon, Jeresaty and Badovinac.
As the Illini have seen this season — and may discover at Iowa next Saturday — defense alone isn’t enough.