Through the first two-thirds of the season, Illinois had shown great improvement on the defensive side of the ball. Against Missouri, a team that had it's way with Illinois in recent years, the defense used a fly-to-the-football, aggressive style to try and contain Mizzou and quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
Even in a loss, the defense showed remarkable improvement from years past and made the Tigers offense work for everything it got.
That would be a theme for the Illinois defense this season. Make the opposing offense work for everything. Bend, but don't break. And don't give up the big play.
It was evident the new approach was working for the Illini as they forced more turnovers and more pressure on the opposition than any time since the 2007 Rose Bowl season.
Against Tyrell Pryor, the heralded quarterback for Ohio State, the Illini defense stepped up to pick him off twice. The Illini defense gave up yards but made Ohio State drive 8-12 plays to get their points.
The defensive turnaround is truly what led the way for the Illini as they started off 5-3, despite inconsistent play on the offensive side of the ball. But somewhere along the way, the defense lost that aggressive style that carried it during the first two-thirds of the season. Solid, fundamentally sound tackling, constant pressure, and the attacking style that they had employed earlier in the year were gone.
In a November 6th loss at Michigan, Illinois gave up numerous big plays on the way to a 67-65 double overtime loss to the Wolverines. The Michigan offense carved up the defense with big play after big play.
Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson had 376 total yards before he left the game. Several of those yards came on two long passing touchdowns to wide receiver Roy Roundtree. Backup quarterback Tate Forcier was equally efficient in leading the Wolverines late in the game.
The bleeding would not stop as Minnesota, Northwestern (even in a losing cause), and Fresno State found their way at times with the defense.
Against Minnesota, it seemed as if the Gophers had oil-slicked jerseys on. The Illini had their worst tackling game of the season which led to several big plays.
Linebacker Nathan Bussey reiterated that sentiment, "Any time a team tackles poorly, it leads to big plays and things like that. It was poor tackling on our behalf and giving up big plays when we really needed to shut them down. If we cover that stuff up and make more tackles, I think it's a better outcome."
During the Fresno State game, the Bulldogs's offense used several long passing plays and Illinois defensive breakdowns to take out the Illini.
Giving up the big play is a very disturbing trend that kept rearing its head as the season went along. Illinois will take on Baylor who boasts duel threat quarterback Robert Griffith III, in the Texas Bowl. He is known for big plays in both the pass and run games.
This will be a stern test for the defense that once carried this team. If the Illini are going to be successful in the Texas Bowl, they must get back to the bend-but-not-break style they employed earlier in the season.
Constant pressure will need to be put on Griffin in order to force the Baylor quarterback to make decisions much quicker than he normally does. If the Illini defense can find the intensity and aggression they used earlier in the season, then it will be a very happy holidays and a much shorter off-season for the Illini Nation.