Illini defense finally stands up to Huskers

Sophomore WR Malik Turner bounces back; freshman RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn excels in increased role

CHAMPAIGN - Illinois co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks hadn't forgotten the Illini’s last two games against Nebraska.

During the previous two Big Ten openers against Illinois -- both at Nebraska -- the Cornhuskers combined to score 84 points and accumulated 1,145 yards off offense (including 793 rushing yards).

So holding Nebraska to a season-low yardage (292 yards) and points in Saturday’s 14-13 home victory was extra sweet for Banks' crew.

“It feels good because we had to play those guys the last two years (at Nebraska) … and it wasn’t pretty, as we all know,” Banks said. “To have a chance to play in front of our home fans was really important to us, and we wanted to make sure we held up our end of the bargain, and I felt like we did that.”

The Illini defense received key contributions from most of its players.

Three of the four Illini starting defensive linemen had tackles for loss, and the one that did not (Jihad Ward) had a quarterback hurry.

Linebackers Mason Monheim and T.J. Neal each had 10 tackles.

Safety Taylor Barton and cornerback V’Angelo Bentley each had two pass break ups and safety Clayton Fejedelem intercepted a pass, thanks in large part to a rush and hit on quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. from defensive tackle Chunky Clements.

“It was a collective effort, and we talked about that,” Banks said. “It wasn’t going to take just one guy. It was going to take 11 guys all doing their job. We played some sub-packages and played some nickel, and those guys did their job.”

 

Turn(er) the corner?

Sophomore receiver Malik Turner has battled confidence issues through most of his season and a half at Illinois.

His confidence took another hit when he dropped two passes, one in the end zone, during Saturday's first half.

His coaches and quarterback didn’t quit on him, though. And on the Illini’s last drive -- on first down at the Illinois 43 with under 40 seconds remaining -- they called his number.

Lunt told Turner in the huddle the Nebraska defense was keying on senior Geronimo Allison and that Turner had a touchdown play ahead of him.

“They were in cover-4 and that safety’s got to make a decision between two of those guys going vertical,” Lunt said. “He made his decision on G-Mo, which was probably the smart move. It makes a lot of sense, but we just connected with the big play.”

Turner didn’t score on the play, but Lunt found Turner behind the safety for a 50-yard gain down the Nebraska 7. Six plays later, Lunt hit Allison with the game-winning one-yard touchdown pass.

The sophomore wideout was headed for another disappointing day. Turner (four receptions, 70 yards) ended it with the most important catch of his career.

“He made a huge play,” Illinois quarterbacks coach Ryan Cubit said. “Can’t be happier for those kids. It gives them confidence.”

 

Fresh(man) opportunity

Illinois running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn never expected to carry the ball 24 times in a game during his freshman season.

“I knew I was going to back up Ferg this year,” said Vaughn, who led the Illini with 98 rushing yards on Saturday. “I knew I was going to get a couple carries, but I wasn’t expecting 24.”

Vaughn’s season-best day was bittersweet. It happened as the result of an injury to senior Josh Ferguson, who left the game in the first half with a shoulder injury.

After the game, Cubit said he did not know the severity of Ferguson’s injury.

While Illinois can’t replace Ferguson’s versatility and experience, the staff at least knows it has a capable running back if Ferguson (who had 50 rushing yards on four carries Saturday) misses extended time.

Vaughn, a four-star prospect, has rushed for 325 yards (4.3 yards per carry) in his first five collegiate games.

“This just means I got to step up,” Vaughn said. “I got to get out this freshman shell. I’m no longer considered a freshman on the field. I have to step up and help my team.

“It means a lot, coming here and coming to a dream spot and playing as a freshman. I’ve really just taken advantage of it and stepped up and helped my team out as much as I can.”


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