Notes: Defense Dominate & More

CHAMPAIGN – A week after a dismal showing against Arizona State, the Illinois defense pitched a shutout against Charleston Southern.

The stats speak to domination, as the Buccaneers managed only 125 total yards and six first downs.

"There was a lot of pride that was hurt, there's no question about it," Beckman said, referring to the Arizona State loss. "From the coaching staff down to the players, we know that we're capable of playing better defensively. I thought the young men came out and played well."

Clearly Charleston Southern was outmatched, so perhaps the statistical supremacy should be taken with a grain of salt. In saying that, some of the issues that led to the embarrassing play the week before were improved. Play calling and communication between the coaches on the sideline and players on the field seemed to be in sync.

"That was a thing we had last week and it was fixed," Beckman said. "We made sure that that wouldn't happen again."

"Eye violations," a term used by Beckman and the staff to describe when a player is looking somewhere he shouldn't be, were corrected, as the option offense employed by the Bucs was stifled. And the tackling improved as well, after giving up 228 yards after initial contact the week prior.

"It's a confidence builder coming back from last week, you know, getting that bad taste out of our mouth and coming out here and pitching that shutout going into next week," defensive tackle Akeem Spence said.

Perhaps a performance like Saturday's, regardless of the opponent, was what the Illini defense needed to get back in the groove for this week's matchup with a well-thought of Louisiana Tech offense. Keeping Charleston Southern off the scoreboard, the first shutout recorded by Illinois since 2007, was good for morale. But it's the way the defense did so that has defensive coordinator Tim Banks pleased moving forward.

"At the end of the day, and I don't want to give you coach speak, but we just want to have one less point than they do," Banks said. "So if the goose egg comes with, then God be it. That's a great opportunity for those guys. I know they take great pride in it. So we're happy, but at the end of the day we just want to make sure we're executing and playing to the best of our abilities, and I thought we did that."

Big names on the sideline

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase's injured left ankle took up much of the news space leading up to the game.

Although nearing full health, the junior didn't play, which didn't come as much of a surprise. Instead, it was who joined Scheelhaase on the sideline that caught many off guard.

Starters Graham Pocic, Josh Ferguson and Houston Bates didn't dress for the game. And receiver Darius Millines (ankle) left the game after making one catch for three yards. None are considered seriously injured and should return for next week's game.

Also missing from action, safeties Supo Sanni (who hasn't played all year with an apparent leg injury) and Steve Hull (shoulder).

All of the attrition has been stressful for the coaching staff, who have spent time adjusting the game plan and re-arraigning the depth chart to accommodate for players unable to play.

"I haven't slept at all, but other than that it is challenging," Beckman said. "You look out there and you see you've got young men that are injured. They don't want to be injured. Nobody wants to be injured. It's just one of those things that you have to adapt through and you have to push your young players to perform. You as a coaching staff have to maybe simplify things because you maybe don't have a veteran in there playing."

Age is just a number

Given the situation with injuries and the FCS opponent, younger players figured to play significant snaps Saturday.

A trio of freshmen exploited that opportunity to the fullest.

Linebacker Mason Monheim started the first game of his career, recording two tackles and intercepting a pass on the first three defensive plays of the game.

"It was a play that we've worked on in practice and to see him go out and execute it, us as coaches it brings joy to us," Banks said. "You know, he saw and recognized and he made the play. That's all we can ask for as coaches."

Monheim, a native of Orrville, Ohio, finished the game with five total tackles, 1.5 for loss.

"Mason as a freshman, he came out and made a lot of plays," Spence said. "He was making a lot of plays in practice. I mean, he's football smart. He knows where he needs to be in his drops and his blitzes. Overall I feel like he played great."

Joining in on the youth movement, freshman tailback Dami Ayoola led the team with 55 yards rushing on eight carries. He scored his first career touchdown in the second quarter, a 28-yard run on a fourth-and-short attempt that saw Ayoola break two tackles and use a second and third effort to score.

"He runs with great passion when he runs the football," Beckman said. "He's not a quitter. He got hit by a couple guys, kept his feet moving, got that first down and finished it up. You know that's the capabilities of Ayoola, and I'm just proud of the way he performed and that he got in the end zone."

Freshman receiver Justin Hardee led the team with 99 yards receiving on five catches. Hardee, who had one career catch coming into the game, stepped in for the injured Millines, catching all but one of his receptions in the second half.

Also of note: freshman cornerback V'Angelo Bentley played a significant role, breaking up three passes.

"V'Angelo, he's getting game experience, he's breaking up passes," Spence said. "We need that. Terry (Hawthorne) is a little bit nicked up. That's great that we have that young guy that can come in and we don't miss a beat when Terry's not on the field."

In total 10 Illini played in their first game Saturday, eight of which were either true or redshirt freshmen.

"That's what this program is gonna need and that's what it's always gonna be about," Beckman said. "It's about young players coming in and playing. We do not have a lot of depth. If you look at our two deep, there's 23 freshmen and sophomores on the two deep. We are not a very veteran-laden team, other than a couple senior starters. Those young men are going to step in."

Run game hit or miss

A week after rushing for 231 yards, the Illinois running attack reverted back to the average look witnessed versus Western Michigan in the season opener.

With Scheelhaase sidelined, the offensive game plan appeared centered on running the ball as the team rushed 19 times in the first half.

However, consistency was lacking as only 79 yards were gained – 28 on one play by Ayoola.

"They were loading up the box," co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty said. "We want to be able to do some things even with the box loaded up. We couldn't run it, and we got to a point where we said we need to go ahead and throw the ball."

While quarterback Reilly O'Toole had career highs in yards passing (250) and touchdowns (5), the running backs remained ineffective. As a team, the Illini averaged 3.8 yards per carry.

Sophomore starter Donovonn Young had more yards receiving (29) than rushing (14) and O'Toole was the second leading rusher on the team behind Ayoola.

Beatty remained optimistic following the game, citing the lack of Pocic and Ferguson as reasons for being unable to properly gauge how effective the running game truly can be.

"We've got a lot of young players in there," Beckman said. "We've got to get better at running the football, there's no question."

This and that

Sophomore Ralph Cooper tied with Ashante Williams for the team lead in tackles with six stops. … Junior wideout Ryan Lankford set a career high with 97 yards receiving. … Center Jake Feldmeyer and Monheim made their first career starts. Illinois held CSU to a 0-for-13 effort on third down. … Illinois is now 12-0 all-time against FCS opponents. … Attendance was announced as 45,369.

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