NOTEBOOK: Illini defense doing its part

Carroll Phillips and Desmond Cain stepping up; Illini running low on RBs

CHAMPAIGN - If Illinois could ever find balance, it'd really have something going.

The two previous seasons, the Illini's capable Big Ten offense received sympathy because its Big Ten-worst defense rarely gave it a shot to win games.

This season, the Illinois defense is deserving of pity -- even more apparent following Saturday's 28-3 loss to No. 3 Ohio State on Saturday.

The Illini defense's solid efforts and great improvement (Illinois ranks eighth in the Big Ten by allowing an average of 24.5 points per game during conference play) have been ruined by an Illini offense that has regressed (ranking last in the Big Ten with an average of 16.3 points per game during conference play).

The Illini (5-5, 2-4 Big Ten) are one of just three teams to keep Ohio State (10-0, 6-0) under 34 points this season (Northern Illinois and Minnesota), and one of Ohio State's touchdowns came after taking over at the Illinois 10-yard line following V'Angelo Betnley's muffed punt in the fourth quarter.

"Our biggest thing is we wanted to come in and play our style of defense," Illinois co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. "We wanted to go in and play press quarters. We're going to play cover-1. We're going to do exactly what we've been doing. We weren't going to deviate from the plan. You see so many teams do that. That's not what we do. That's not who I am. Fortunately for us, I thought our kids executed and we were at least able to hold them at bay."

The Illini defensive improvement has been slow but steady, dating back to the final five games last season -- when the Illinois defense helped the Illini win three games to earn a trip to the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

"I keep saying it, we played well the last half of the season last year," Banks said. "We've picked up where we left off. I'm proud of these guys. As I told you guys as I stood in front of you all those years when it was tough, I haven't lost confidence in who I am as a coach. At the end of the day, it's my job to put them in the best possible positions to be successful. That's what I've tried to do since I've been here. We're very fortunate the kids are executing at a high level."

Phillips adds playmaker

Illinois has lost some gambles on junior college transfers. But the staff also has hit on a few big ones, most notably defensive lineman Jihad Ward and receiver Geronimo Allison, two NFL prospects.

Add another one to the "hits" list. Junior defensive end Carroll Phillips has emerged as another difference-making JUCO addition.

The Miami native showed flashes in seven games last season, but his year ended too soon due to a neck injury. But the 6-foot-3, 230-pound athlete seems to have hit his stride midway through his junior campaign,

Phillips started the season in Illinois' subpackages, mostly on passing downs, as a situational pass rusher. He registered two sacks against Wisconsin and then earned a start against Purdue. Illinois moved Ward inside to defensive tackle and moved defensive tackle Chunky Clements into a rotational role. 

In his second consecutive start on Saturday, Phillips registered a season-high 11 tackles, along with a half tackle for loss, a quarterback hurry and a pass breakup, on Saturday.

"He's an athlete," Banks said. "He's quick-twitched. So many times, you got to scheme it up to have a guy make plays. You don't have to do that for him. He's pretty athletic, enough that he can win his one on ones, particularly in the throw game. He's just given us a different dimension in terms of coming off the edge."

Cain is able

With injuries sidelining Mikey Dudek and Justin Hardee for the season, Illinois needed a wide receiver (or two) to step up. 

Geronimo Allison filled the role for the first half of the season, while the rest of the inexperienced Illini receiving corps struggled with drops, miscommunications and struggles to get open against physical coverage.

But defenses have keyed on Allison -- who had 49 receptions for 700 yards in his first seven games -- in recent weeks, limiting the senior wideout to nine catches for 94 yards during the past three games. The Illini passing game's efficiency has suffered, but one bright spot has been true freshman wide receiver Desmond Cain.

Recruited as a defensive back but converted to receiver due to need, Cain impressed during fall training camp and slowly won the starting slot receiver job over junior Dionte Taylor. Cain has blossomed the past two weeks, culminating in career highs of 10 catches and 102 yards in Saturday's loss. Cain is second on the Illini in receptions (43) and receiving yards (398) and is gaining trust from his quarterback.

"I think he's just getting more and more confident," Illini quarterback Wes Lunt said. "He progresses so much every week with his ability to get open. That last drive, he made a few good catches. We're playing against the No. 3-ranked team in the country and they're a good defense. As a true freshman, he's making some plays."

RB's running low

A football team can never have enough running backs. Illinois certainly has learned that this season.

The Illini lost two options before the season, freshmen Dre Brown (torn ACL) and Reggie Corbin (torn labrum). Senior starter Josh Ferguson missed most of the first four Big Ten games with an AC sprain, and junior college transfer Henry Enyenihi has missed the last two games with a knee sprain.

The backfield took more hits during Saturday's loss to Ohio State, leaving Illinois basically with one of its top-five running backs -- and even that one was limited due to injury.

Ke'Shawn Vaughn, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week, left the game during the second quarter. Cubit said the running back will go through concussion protocol this week.

Ferguson (75 total yads on 17 touches) played the entire game but appeared to suffer a hamstring injury during the game, limiting his effectiveness. But Ferguson had to play through it because the next back on the depth chart is walk-on Cam Tucker, who carried twice for minus-1 yard.

"The issue is the depth," Cubit said. "We have so many guys out. The problem is the personnel groupings. You just get locked in. A lot of it is on Wes' shoulders. The guy made some hellacious throws, and we probably should've helped him out a couple other times. They were there, and we just didn't help him out."

Lunt, who was 23-for-47 passing for 241 yards (but threw no interceptions) admits he wasn't on top of his game. But the Illini's imbalance -- 47 passes to 25 runs (three of which were sacks) -- makes the Illini much more predictable and easier to defend.

"I thought our line did a good job," Lunt said. "I thought I rolled out a few times when I shouldn't have. ...It was kind of tough in the second half with Ke'Shawn banged up and Ferg a little banged up. We really had to pass every play. It's a testament to (our offensive line). They (Ohio State) knew what was coming, and I thought our o-line did a good job.

"I hope we get Ke'Shawn back and Ferg's OK because we're not very deep at running back," Lunt said. We just got to keep fighting. We just have to stay positive. We're 5-5 with two more games. We kind of control our own destiny. We're just going to keep fighting."

Moral victory?

Progress for Illinois didn't come in the form of a win on Saturday. But the eye test certainly showed improvement.

Illinois had lost its previous three games to Ohio State by a combined score of 167-79 and hadn't kept Ohio State under 50 points in either of the three games.

"We know we're a good team," senior safety Clayton Fejedelem said. "We are missing Dudek. We are missing Hardee. But we're still in these games. We just played the defending national champs, and a few plays go differently, it's a lot different game. We were in the red zone a few times and didn't capitalize. Defensively, we had them in fourth and long and didn't capitalize. Plays like that, when you play a team of that caliber, you can't shoot yourself in the foot. We have to get over that hump."

The Illini kept the game within a possession for 29 minutes and kept the game within two possessions for 50 minutes. Too many offensive miscues -- the Illini had five drievs inside the Ohio State 33 and scored just three points -- cost the Illini a chance at an upset.

"I think we were way more competitive than we were last year," senior guard Ted Karras said. "I don't want to take any moral victories out of this because this would've been an awesome win to end my career at Memorial.

"We're definitely going to fight. We have two winnable games, two teams we beat last year. 7-5, I don't think anyone picked us for that. I mean, we have a chance to win eight games. Around here, that's pretty special. That's what we're going for."

Quick hits

  • Illini senior safety Clayton Fejedelem led the Illini with 15 tackles (2 solo, 13 assists), marking the sixth time in eight games that he's collected 12 or more tackles. He lead the Big Ten with 115 tackles and ranks fifth in the FBS with 11.5 tackles per game.
  • The attendance of 51,115 was a season-high for the Illini and the first time the Illini topped 50,000 on the season.
  • Illinois at Minnesota will kick off at 11 a.m. CT on Saturday and will be televised on ESPNews. The season finale against Northwestern on Nov. 28 at Soldier Field will kick off at either 11 a.m. or 2:30 p.m. The game time is expected to be announced on Monday.

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