The Illinois defense held Indiana far below it's scoring average, put frequent pressure on star quarterback Ben Chappell and grabbed four interceptions and a fumble to turn Homecoming into a rout. Head coach Ron Zook praised the defense afterward.
"I thought our defense rose to the challenge and did a great job against an awfully good offense. They take it as a challenge. That's a sign that we're getting better and doing the things the coaches are asking them to do."
After having only three interceptions through the first six games, they were abundant Saturday. Pat Nixon-Youman and freshman Jonathan Brown returned their interceptions 68 and 66 yards respectively for scores, Tavon Wilson stepped out of bounds or he would have had a pick-six, and Terry Hawthorne grabbed a deflected pass. Zook liked what he saw.
"We stress turnovers all the time. They kind of come and go. Hopefully we'll get them for awhile here."
Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning has done an admirable job with an inexperienced defense that lacks depth. Knowing it needed to keep the Hoosiers off the field to help the Illini offense, the defense rose to the occasion.
"They know that Indiana has thrown the ball all around the lot against almost everybody," Koenning states. "I think we probably gave up too many yards today, but yards don't win games. We were able to get takeaways and create some things to get them off the field."
Indiana gained 279 yards passing and 388 total, slightly below their averages for the season. But Chappell, who had been hitting 68% of his passes, managed only 26 of 49 on the day. Zook praised the entire defense for the pressure it brought to the IU star. They had only one sack, but they hit Chappell numerous times.
"I didn't think we would be able to get that kind of pressure on him. He gets rid of the ball so fast. Our guys did a great job, they really did. The defensive line, linebackers, everybody was involved in rushing him. That's a heck of a quarterback. Anytime you can get some pressure on him...The defense played tremendously."
Martez Wilson, who again led the Illini in tackles with 12 while adding one pass breakup, one quarterback hurry and a punt block, noticed Chappell getting edgy in the pocket after a few hits. He may have rushed some passes as a result.
"Oh yeah. I think any quarterback that constantly gets hit has to get rattled sooner or later. For us to be able to get pressure on him, it helped a lot."
Zook had special praise for Wilson.
"Martez made some big plays. He's a force out there, he really is. He continues to improve. I think the leadership, not only the way he led in practice...him and Corey (Liuget) and Ian (Thomas) and Clay (Nurse), those guys are practicing the way you want them to."
Nixon-Youman's pick-six demoralized Indiana, making the score 24-7 in the first half. After suffering a severe pelvic injury two springs ago, Nixon-Youman is finally getting playing time and fulfilling the promise he displayed as a freshman.
"I think that play will give Pat Nixon a lot of confidence," Zook reminded. "They get that confidence, and they really take off. He's been practicing a lot better too. I'm real happy for him. We're gonna need everybody as we (continue)."
Nixon-Youman tried to downplay his accomplishment afterward. He was reminded there was a lot of game left to play.
"I felt great about it. But as it happened, Coach came to me and told me I had to get back out there and do it. It was like you did a great job, you read your keys, that's what we've got to keep on doing. Coach preached that to me all week and this morning, and I did it today."
Brown's interception return provided the final margin, like putting a cherry on top of a sundae. But for the rookie linebacker, it was a play he will never forget.
"I'm glad I could contribute to a great Homecoming win. I definitely tried to will myself into the end zone. I got to the 20 and I felt a monkey jump on my back a little bit. I knew I had to get in there thought."
Justin Staples stripped the ball from an IU running back, and Thomas recovered to aid the cause. And Wilson and Nate Bussey contributed punt blocks. The Illini offense didn't take as much advantage of great field position as they wanted, but they did enough to win according to Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino.
"The defense and special teams today were awesome. They got after those guys. We should have scored more points. We had a couple nice easy field positions where we should have scored. We didn't, but we did play good enough to win. We still need to improve. I was really proud of our kids on that last drive to go down and score."
"Any time you win, that's the bottom line. We found a way to win and make a couple big plays, so that's something to be positive about. Build on that and get better this week."
Nathan Scheelhaase had touchdown passes of 29 yards to tight end Evan Wilson and 17 yards to Jarred Fayson, who showed his athleticism by breaking tackles and speeding into the end zone. Overall, Scheelhaase was a respectable 13 of 21 for 123 yards and no interceptions. He played the second half with a sore hand according to Zook.
"Nathan threw the ball extremely well. He hurt his hand first half, but I think he will be all right. He got it stepped on. He played the whole second half, so he can't be hurt too bad."
Petrino's critique included imperfections in Scheelhaase's game. His fumble near the IU goal line was a mistake, for example.
"He did some things better. There were a couple plays he missed, but he made some big plays. He can't fumble, but he didn't throw an interception."
The Illini gained 166 net yards rushing, below their season average. Mikel Leshoure was held to 77 yards in 16 carries, while Scheelhaase added 45 in six sorties. Jason Ford, who may be out awhile after injuring his ankle, added 22 yards, as did Eddie McGee, playing in a wildcat formation.
Petrino explained the problems running the ball.
"I think part of it was they were dropping their safeties down, putting everybody close to the line of scrimmage. Going into the game, we felt like they were better going right up the middle, and they didn't tackle quite as well on the perimeter. We were trying to get out on the perimeter more."
Leshoure, who ended the scoring with a 7 yard burst in the fourth quarter, felt the Illini had a good week of preparation and a good game plan. He was happy with the help provided by the defense.
"It was a good game. I thought offensively we could have put some more points on the board. We left a lot of points out there. The defensive guys are getting better every week."
The Illini have a great deal of momentum as they continue their season against Purdue at home next Saturday. They are taking one game at a time and worrying about the results at the end of the season. Two more wins and a bowl game will be available to them. They want more.
"These guys are beginning to believe we have a chance to be a good football team," Zook says. "We've still got a lot of football to play."