Vic Koenning was brought to Illinois to upgrade the defense, and he did that. In particular, he improved tackling technique, demanded swarming to the ball and gave his players an aggressive style they enjoyed playing.
Koenning is emotionally attached to his players, and he suffers with every defensive breakdown. But at the same time, he is experienced enough to know the difficulty of playing at a peak level every game. The Illini were better early than late in the season, but he realizes life isn't always logical.
"I think things kind of even themselves out. We got fortunate early in the year and had plays happen for us. And we had a couple weeks where we didn't make plays.
"I think the guys understand that we have to be all-out electric or we're average at best. It's hard to do that over the course of the season. We're trying our level best to do that. We don't have a lot of depth, so guys have to play a lot of plays. Sometimes in the fourth quarter it's hard to continue to go at the speed that we need to go at. It's just the way it is."
Injuries depleted the defensive backfield before the start of the season, but his starters stayed relatively healthy throughout the rugged 12 game schedule.
"Knock on wood, we've been fortunate in a lot of respects. It's just guys hanging in there. We're expecting them to be a top 10 defense and make all the plays you would if you were a top 10 defense. That hasn't always been the case, but we're still coaching towards that."
The Illini defense was riding high after consecutive home victories over Indiana and Purdue. But the overtime 67-65 loss at Michigan was the exact opposite result. Koenning isn't sure why that happened.
"One of my disappointments is we haven't gotten better through the season, which is something I've always prided the defenses I've been associated with. We had a little lapse, and whatever has caused it, we've got to go and play our best game (in the Texas Bowl)."
The Minnesota game saw quality defense part of the time, but the Illini wore down at the end. Koenning said at the time the Illini had lost confidence and needed to get it back. They played a quality game the next week in the win over Northwestern. Did they get their stinger back that game?
"I don't know. I know the guys tried to play hard, but there's still times we had lapses. Anytime we relaxed at all, it seems like they went down the field pretty fast. We're just fighting, scratching and clawing to try to be competitive.
"We had some lapses in the first half. It's hard to understand you have one guy get out of his gap and a guy goes 80 yards for a touchdown. That's just a microcosm that we need to get some erasers back there.
"Somebody misses a tackle up front, and then we miss on the back end. That's happened too many times this season. We've got to get where that doesn't happen. There's a lot of things we've got to work on, improve on."
Whatever the problems, the Illini are working hard to improve.
"I don't think we could work these guys any harder than we're working them right now."
The Illini gave up 16 first quarter points at Fresno State to conclude the regular season but settled down thereafter. Koenning changed his strategy to counter surprises from FSU.
"I had to. They're a running team, and they came out throwing the ball. They changed all their statistical data. In situations where they were 70-80% run, they were throwing it.
"About the beginning of the second quarter we had to go to more pass-oriented type stuff. I wonder when's the last time Fresno had 60 some yards rushing. We don't feel good about that performance, and yet they were held under their average by ten yards. It wasn't enough to win. We didn't get the job done. That's the most important thing."
Illini defensive backs played far off receivers in that game, making pass completions easy. Did the slippery, dew-laden turf make the Illini secondary tentative?
"Somewhat, but it's a numbers deal. You have to have enough to stop the run in certain formations. You put more to the run, so your guys can't cover the deep bomb or the comebacks. There's nobody that can do that. They were a versatile team."
Whatever confidence was gained from the Northwestern game may have been damaged in California. Confidence is everything in football.
"I'm trying to boost their confidence up. I'm trying to tell them, 'Guys, in conference games you're third in the conference on defense.' I wasn't here, but I think we're better than last year. Overall we're fifth in the conference in defense.
"I don't think you can play football without confidence. There's only so many things I can do. And they understand false confidence too. You have to do it in the right kind of way.
"You build confidence by constant repetition and getting them to believe they can do it. We work so hard to try to build their confidence, and to tear it down is so easy. We've got to work doubly hard to try to build it."
Koenning knows his defense faces a stern test against Baylor in the Texas Bowl December 29.
"Those schemes are the schemes a lot of teams in the Big 12 apply. I've seen their scores, and a lot of their scores are 50-40. That conference tends to do that. There are some great (defensive) coaches in that conference, and they're still putting up 40 + points on them. It's gonna take everything we've got, but it is what it is."
Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III has thrown for over 3000 yards, but he also has speed similar to Michigan phenom Denard Robinson. Did the Illini learn things from the UM game that will help against Baylor?
"I doubt it. We've tried to forget that somewhat. The offense is dissimilar, but you do have to contain a fast quarterback."