Illinois defense at Nebraska

Illinois defensive tackle Jamal Woods (91) and linebacker Khalan Tolson (45) are expected to be two key returning players for first-year Illini defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, who joined Bret Bielema’s staff last week after working the past six seasons at Missouri.

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Culture: Defined, as it relates to football, a pervasive expectation, an atmosphere, gained via achievement; an ingrained method of performance that envelopes a team.

This is the central element Illinois failed to establish under Lovie Smith and his recent predecessors. Oh, that’s right, Smith emphasized turnovers, but that is a fleeting, unpredictable value. The oblong ball takes crazy bounces.

In the seven seasons of the Big Ten’s West Division, the three winners — Wisconsin (4), Northwestern (2) and Iowa (1) — derived their consistency from one factor: defense. It has become built-in over time, even as most of their annual recruiting lists are only marginally more impressive than the less successful Illini.

Diminishing returnsThe importance of defense causes me to be unconvinced about a quick UI turnaround, even as Bret Bielema might see the return of all five quarterbacks, the 1-2 running backs, six of the top seven offensive linemen, both tight ends, two of the top three receivers, the punter and the place kicker.

Offensively, coordinator Tony Petersen has ultra-experienced talent.

But it is the defense that wins games in the West, or at least assures competitiveness. Defensive failures have demoralized the entire UI team since that insane moment after the 2011 season when Tim Beckman let coordinator Vic Koenning slip away.

Even as a six-game losing streak cost Ron Zook his job, Koenning’s defense allowed just 19.6 points per game and was No. 7 nationally in permitting 286 yards per game.

That system was in place. In the nine seasons since, Illinois has posted annual numbers under 31 points just twice: 2015 — 23.3 with Bill Cubit as interim head coach and Tim Banks directing the defense; 2019 — 26.2 with Smith personally handling coordinator duties. The 2019 season was an outlier as Illinois allowed 39.4 points in 2018, and a regrettable 34.9 in the shortened 2020 campaign.

In a word: stabilityLook at the consistency of the West’s persistent leaders.

➜ Iowa: The word is stability. Phil Parker joined head coach Kirk Ferentz in 1999, replaced Norm Parker (no relation) as defensive coordinator in 2012, and has remained in charge. In the past 10 seasons, Iowa held opponents to 23.8, 22.9, 18.9, 25.6, 20.4, 18.8, 19.9, 17.8, 14.0 and 16.0 points per game. Notice the improvement as the system became more ingrained. The Hawkeyes have won 12 of 13 versus Illinois, and have 19 defensive players on NFL rosters; Illinois has nine.

➜ Northwestern: More stability. In the last six years, the Wildcats allowed 18.5, 22.2, 20.1, 23.2, 23.6 and 15.9 points per game. The credit surely goes to former All-America linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, who has emphasized defense alongside his veteran defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz (newly retired after 50-plus seasons). In squelching the Illini, Fitzgerald’s gang has allowed one touchdown in each of the last four meetings.

➜ Wisconsin: For all the talk about Jonathan Taylor, Melvin Gordon and the massive offensive lines, the defense handed down from AD Barry Alvarez, and formerly handled by Bielema, reveals 10 years of winning numbers. Beginning in 2011, they’ve given up 19.0, 19.1, 16.3, 20.8, 13.7, 15.6, 13.9, 22.6, 16.1 and 17.4. That’s unbelievable. Illinois has won twice in the last 16 tries, and the 24-23 upset in 2019 bordered on the miraculous.

Walters hiring a good start

New UI defensive coordinator Ryan Walters will be earning nearly $1 million (he reached $900,000 at Missouri), and as he nears his 35th birthday on Jan. 21, he exudes the energy of youth and the experience of five seasons as co- or full-time DC at Missouri.

Mizzou’s numbers in 2019 were exceptional as the Tigers finished No. 14 in yards allowed (312), No. 17 in scoring (19.4) and No. 8 in pass defense (179.3). If the defense unraveled in 2020 (148 points allowed in the last three games), it reflected the COVID-19 opt-outs and unpredictable aspects of the year ... not to mention the implementation of a new system under offense-minded first-year coach Eli Drinkwitz.

Walters now faces a Herculean task as he constructs a new staff around a unit that (1) is thin up front with end Owen Carney entering the portal, (2) loses top cornerback Nate Hobbs in a porous secondary and (3) has only two established linebackers, Khalan Tolson and Tarique Barnes, both of whom will miss spring drills due to surgery.

It won’t be easy to ignite a defensive culture under circumstances requiring immediate portal enhancement. But the Bielema-Walters pairing is the right way to start.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com

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