Defense Looking for Big Plays in Lincoln

The difference so far this year has been the offense, but if the program wants to truly improve, the defense has to progress.

CHAMPAIGN - Sometimes as much as things change, they also stay the same.

Going into Saturday's game at Nebraska, the Illinois Fighting Illini are 3-1. Much of the credit for the turnaround has gone to the offense and new coordinator Bill Cubit, and that's for good reason.

After their non-conference schedule, the Illini have quickly gone from having the Big Ten's worst offense to being among the league leaders in points per game (40.2) and total offense (478.5 yards per game).

Unfortunately, offense is only one part of the game. Illinois's defense hasn't yet caught up to its counterparts on the other side of the ball. The Illini are ranked 10th in the Big Ten in total defense after being ranked, well, 10th last year.

The difference so far this year has been the offense, but if the program wants to truly improve, the defense has to progress. There's no better time and place than Saturday in Lincoln, Neb.

"We haven't really gotten the top blown off us," safety Earnest Thomas III said. "We just have to make a play when it presents itself, whether it's a tackle, getting a ball out of a guy's hands or an interception."

Illinois's defense is ranked ninth in the conference against the pass and 10th Illini seem to really be missing are impact plays: the tackles for loss and turnovers that can really affect the game in their favor. Those are the kinds of the plays that make it easier to win, especially on the road.

In their first four games, the Illini have four sacks and only one interception. They've forced only four turnovers this season, the fewest turnovers in the Big Ten. Senior defensive end Tim Kynard said that improvement will come from a group effort. That will be a necessity against Nebraska, which has given up the fewest sacks in the conference.

"We've progressed over the first four games," Kynard said. "Guys are showing the ability to get a pass rush. We've just got to get there so we can help out the secondary and linebackers. If everybody does their job, somebody's going to make a play."

Much of the anxiety about the defense has come from the young secondary giving up big plays downfield, but Illini coach Tim Beckman is confident things will advance on the back end.

"All four of the DBs have gotten better, but we have to tackle better in space," Beckman said. "We have to make sure we cover the deeper routes better. I think Earnest and Taylor (Barton) have played well, but I think we need to progress at (safety) as well as corner."

According to Thomas, there's a fight in this defensive unit that wasn't there last year. If that's true, the Illini will need every bit of that fight to make a dent in the Big Ten this season.

"One thing we've done this year is no matter if we're up or down, we continue to play hard each and every snap," Thomas said. "I think that's the biggest difference on defense this year. You'll never see us hang our heads or calling it in early."

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