Lights Out Defense Lead Illini To Win


Published on September 11 2017 6:23 am
Last Updated on September 11 2017 6:23 am

Illinois played under the lights Saturday night at Memorial Stadium. But all anyone could talk about after the 20-7 Fighting Illini win was the lights out defense.

"They had our backs the whole game," Illinois wide receiver Mike Dudek said of the young defense. "I thought they played lights out."

The Orange and Blue stuffed the Hilltoppers rushing game, allowing just six yards on the ground. A week after struggling to get off the field against Ball State - the Cardinals converted 12 of 21 third downs - the Illini held Western Kentucky to 2 of 12 on third-down conversions.

"I've talked a lot about that we should see a lot of second-game improvement. Especially when you have a young ball club like we do," Head Coach Lovie Smith said. "They're being put in situations that are new to them each week. But, again they stepped up to the plate and they're taking advantage of it."

With a 6-0 lead late in the first half behind a pair of Chase McLaughlin field goals, the Hilltoppers were pinned deep in their own territory, backed up against the raucous Block I student section. On first down, freshman Isaiah Gay wrapped up the WKU ball carrier for a two-yard loss. On the next play, junior transfer Del'Shawn Phillips hurried the Hilltopper quarterback to throw an interception into the waiting arms of junior Julian Jones for an easy pick six.  

"That was definitely a momentum play. Going up two scores, that relieves a lot of pressure," Jones said of the play. "As soon as I saw the ball in the air my eyes got wide. It was coming right to me and there was no one in front of me so I was able to walk into the end zone. Everybody did their job on the play."

The defensive score shot energy into a young team that was eager to prove the skeptics wrong. Some odds makers pegged Illinois as a touchdown-or-more underdog at home.

"No matter who we're playing, it's a little bit of disrespect," quarterback Chayce Crouch said. "I think our program has been through a lot, so it doesn't really take much to motivate us. We come into every game hungry. We're a very motivated football team."

Crouch and the offense came out of the half with confidence in their game plan and the Newark, Ohio, native capped a 15-play 84-yard drive with an acrobatic 9-yard touchdown run to extend the Illini lead to 20-0.

"Every time you start the second half with the ball it helps," Crouch said. "Fast start, coming right out of the locker room, we were going right away."

As expected, the Illini were forced to rely on their underclassmen on Saturday, as 17 true freshmen got into the game. In addition to Mike Epstein, who carried 21 times for 111 yards, freshman Bobby Roundtree made a huge impact for the Illinois defense, totaling two sacks, including a forced fumble. Freshman cornerback Nate Hobbs also impressed, coming away with six tackles, including one tackle for loss.

"We put guys out there that we think can win football games," Smith said. "Roundtree has been a good player since he's been on campus. Isaiah Gay has done the same thing, and Jamal Woods. Those players have earned the reps they've gotten. We talk a lot about the freshman, but we have other young players. Jamal Milan is a young player. Tymir Oliver is a young player. Kenyon Jackson. There are a lot of those guys really stepping up to the plate."