Smile Politely

Illini defense finds its way against Minnesota

I don’t know how to write this story.

I started covering Illini football when Tim Beckman started coaching. I’ve been in the press box for every home game over that span and, although I’ve seen good games against lesser competition, I have never seen anything from the Illini as good as the team’s 28-24 win over Minnesota.

The last time I wrote a game recap, after the miserable Purdue loss, I came to the conclusion that Tim Beckman (and maybe everyone on staff) needed to be fired. I’m not sure that I’ve fully changed my mind, but I definitely felt something different on Saturday. I felt like the players were given a game plan and they executed it exceedingly well. I felt like the coaching staff made smart decisions when it would have been easy to make other decisions or change course. And, above all, I felt happy for the Illini.

From the start of the game, things were going well for Illinois. Of course, we’ve seen the hot start fizzle out already this season, so when Reilly O’Toole found Jon Davis in the endzone it easily could have become the same old Illini. But then the defense made stops and didn’t stop making the plays it should—which is not something I expected based on the rest of this season.

The Illini defense forced 5 punts in the first half and allowed Minnesota (who had been averaging 25 points per game) just 3 points. Illinois went into half time leading by 11 points but also with more rushing yards (59-56), passing yards (106-30), and time of possession (15:36-14:24). These are not insignificant stats, and they’re not all attributable to the improvement on defense.

O’Toole, for example, was a huge presence in this game. When most people were fuming at Tim Beckman for burning Aaron Bailey’s redshirt this year and not playing him, the coach (or a combination of him and Bill Cubit [more likely]) made the decision to ride with O’Toole on Saturday. The decision paid off, as O’Toole was the right man for the job. He played like a senior, he made smart decisions, he even ran the ball more than he ever has before, and he was a difference maker for Illinois. His 118 yards passing and 59 yards rushing kept the Minnesota defense off balance and provided Illinois with the spark it needed.

But it wasn’t just O’Toole either, it was the six receivers that got looks, the seven different rushers, the trick plays, including a 22-yard pass from Mike Dudek to Geronimo Allison. Illinois never went with the singular big play on offense, but didn’t dink-and-dunk across the field either. They looked good, they moved well, they simply outplayed the Gophers.

Yet it was the defense that made all the difference.

In past weeks the Illini defense has looked something like a tragedy, with opponents easily evading arm tackles and totally outclassing the Orange and Blue. This week the Illini were unrecognizable. The team swarmed the ball and rarely let the Gophers past the first tackler. In short, they were what a Big Ten defense is supposed to be, but what Illinois has consistently fallen short of under Tim Beckman.

There was a moment when things appeared to revert to form, when the Illinois defense looked its old self. Early in the third quarter Minnesota QB needed just just one play, a 52-yard strike to Mitch Leidner, to make it 14-10. Then after another Illinois touchdown, another big pass play set Minnesota up for a second touchdown, then just before the end of the fourth quarter two big runs from David Cobb put Minnesota ahead 24-21.

At this point Illinois was in very familiar territory: They were trailing at the start of the fourth quarter. This is how it has been every game. It’s hard to believe, but yes, Illinois has not held a lead after three quarters in any game this year. So I, like many fans I’d guess, assumed this is how it would end, with more points next to Minnesota’s name on the scoreboard.

But the defense did it again. Instead of crumbling, they forced Minnesota to take a field goal into the wind (which the Gophers missed) and then V’Angelo Bentley recovered a fumble and scored the winning touchdown. The game still took some seeing out, which might have been a frightening a week ago, but the defense was clicking and everyone was pitching in. One of the key plays was Clayton Fejedelem breaking up a pass on the goal line, this from a guy who gave up on football in Division II but changed his mind and walked on at Illinois.

T.J. Neal said after the game that the game plan was the difference today.

“The coaches broke it down real simplified, ‘You’re gonna do this, you do that.’ We had a very smart game plan and the guys really held each other accountable,” he said. Even during the third quarter, the defense never got rattled and never lost sight of their goal. “We went to the sidelines and the coaches said, ‘That was the last play, you gotta make the next play.’ We had to continue to hold the offense and play defense, swarm to the ball.”

I can’t say what made this week different. Maybe it was a better game plan from the coaches. Maybe it was the slick “Gray Ghost” uniform. Maybe it the bye week before this game. Maybe it was homecoming. It could have been all of those things, but whatever it was it was great.

I’ve been negative and snarky throughout each of my football articles so far this year, but I haven’t really had the chance to do that in this article. I like that; I wish that I could just say nice things about these players and coaches every week. I’m not certain that’s going to happen, because this one win (the first Big Ten win at home since 10/1/11) is not going to save Tim Beckman’s job. But another win, two more wins, it doesn’t feel impossible anymore. Yeah, I’m saying Illinois qualifying for a bowl game is NOT IMPOSSIBLE. I feel insane for thinking that after watching the Purdue game, but here I am. Please don’t make me look stupid, Illini.

Player of the game

I have to mention V’Angelo Bentley here, because on Saturday he became the first player in Illinois history to return a fumble, interception, punt, and kickoff. But he’s not my choice. I’m going with T.J. Neal. On a day when defense was the difference, Neal was the biggest difference. The sophomore linebacker played like a champion, racking up a team high 12 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. He was everywhere on defense and made me forget just how bad this defense has been this year. Breakout games like this seemingly equally lead to bright futures and future anonymity, here’s hoping for the former from Neal.

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