Illinois defense gets chance for redemption

September, 19, 2012
9/19/12
4:30
PM CT
Illinois' defense entered the season pegged as one of the Big Ten's best, a distinction linebacker Jonathan Brown thinks the Illini still merit.

"We've got the best front seven in the country," Brown told reporters last week. "I firmly believe that."

His comments came four days after Illinois surrendered 45 points and 510 yards in a blowout loss to Arizona State. The Illini had communication problems early and missed tackles throughout the game. Perhaps the only positive is that the contest kicked off so late (10:30 p.m. ET) that most of the country missed it.

The debacle in the desert would seem to counter Brown's claim. Then again, it could be just an aberration -- a bad night after a long trip. Illinois has allowed just seven points in its two victories.

[+] EnlargeIllinois' Akeem Spence
Bradley Leeb/US PRESSWIREAkeem Spence and the Illinois defense have allowed seven total points in two victories, but allowed 45 in a loss to Arizona State.
What is the real Illini defense?

The beauty is we'll soon find out, thanks to the schedule.

After a game that revealed virtually nothing -- last week's 44-0 smashing of woeful Charleston Southern -- Saturday night's test against Louisiana Tech figures to show much more about the Illinois defense. Louisiana Tech's offensive numbers, despite a small sample size (two games), are quite staggering:

  • Fifth nationally in total offense (603.5 ypg)
  • Third in scoring (56 ppg)
  • Ninth in rushing (289 ypg)
  • 17th in passing (314.5 ypg)
  • Tied for 15th in offensive plays per game (83)

"They’re not complicated with what they do," Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. "They just do what they do very well."

The final number might get Illinois' attention more than any other. Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes wants his offense, led by senior quarterback Colby Cameron and freshman running backs Tevin King and Kenneth Dixon, operating at an accelerated tempo, and the Bulldogs ran 94 players in their opening win against Houston.

Arizona State coach Todd Graham also preaches a quick pace on offense, and although his Sun Devils ran only 67 plays against the Illini, they capitalized on a defense that looked out of sorts, especially early in the game.

"It was just a lack of communication," defensive tackle Akeem Spence told ESPN.com. "Guys were looking at the wrong person, getting the wrong call."

Illinois simplified the signaling issue and worked to prepare for Tech's pace this week. Coaches put players through "fastball" periods in practice, where Spence estimates six plays were run in a span of a minute or so.

They also went over rotations and substitution patterns for an opponent that makes it difficult to shuffle players on and off of the field.

"It's just guys talking," Spence said, "making sure one another is on the same page, and just getting on the small things not to get us beat. Make sure the guys have the right call. If we're all wrong, and we all have the wrong call, then we're all right. ... When they're going so fast, you can't really take guys out, and you don't want to get any stupid penalties, 12 men on the field, substitution penalties.

"I think we took the proper measures to get ready for these guys."

According to Spence, Illinois will look to take away King, Dixon and the run game and make Louisiana Tech one-dimensional. Like Brown, Spence hasn't lost any confidence in the front seven, which he thinks still can be elite.

Saturday night, they have the chance to prove it.

"We've got to execute a lot better than we did when we played Arizona State," Spence said. "If we do that, we'll have a better outcome. A lot better outcome."

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