CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Illinois’ offensive players spent most of Saturday afternoon running for their lives as IU defenders chased them all over the Memorial Stadium field.
Playing against the Big Ten’s worst scoring offense, the IU defense made it a priority to attack the line of scrimmage and get after Illinois sophomore quarterback Jeff George Jr. at every turn.
It’s safe to say the Hoosiers accomplished their goal.
With eight sacks, two interceptions and a fumble recovery, IU (4-6, 1-6 in the Big Ten) was able to overwhelm all aspects of Illinois’ (2-8, 0-7) offense for much of the game. But even in the aftermath of Coach Tom Allen’s first ever Big Ten victory, the Hoosiers felt there was room for improvement.
“I think we could have been even better in some spots,” junior defensive lineman Jacob Robinson said. “It’s never going to be perfect.”
It was as close to a perfect defensive performance as IU has turned in during Big Ten play, but what Robinson alluded to were some big plays – like a 77-yard Illinois touchdown pass to start the second half – that led to points for the opposition.
After IU held Illinois to 72 total yards and no points in the first half, George came out and doubled his team’s production in one play with a deep bomb to freshman tight end Louis Dorsey. After that potential gut punch cut IU’s lead in half, Robinson said the Hoosiers refocused and buckled down.
Illinois would finish with less than 300 yards of offense.
“We had so much of the game left to play that if you get on yourself there’s just going to be another one,” Robinson said of the long touchdown.
Two drives later, Robinson picked up his first sack of the day and kicked off what turned out to be a huge second-half performance. Robinson finished the game with seven tackles and a pair of sacks, one of which forced a fumble that senior linebacker Tegray Scales recovered.
Eye-popping stat lines could be found across the IU defense as the Hoosiers picked up three takeaways for the second time this season. Scales had an interception to go along with his fumble recovery, while fellow senior linebacker Chris Covington picked up eight tackles and 1.5 sacks.
Allen said after the game that IU was focused on taking Illinois’ run game away to make the Illini throw on early downs. The Hoosiers gave up just 83 yards to Illini running back Kendrick Foster, which left Allen pleased and allowed IU’s defensive line to swarm George on early downs.
“We eliminate the run game, it puts a lot of pressure on the offense,” Allen said. “That was probably the biggest key.”
IU has had a strong defense all season long. The Hoosiers entered Saturday with the 32nd ranked defense in FBS, but they’ve struggled in two areas that played significant roles Saturday – finishing games and creating takeaways.
Thanks to a barrage of late Illinois turnovers that saw IU pick up its fumble recovery and two interceptions in the last six minutes of the game, the Hoosiers killed two birds with one stone, closing out Illinois with possession-changing plays that put the game out of reach for good.
Allen has said throughout the year that once his defense picks up a few takeaways, they’ll start to come in droves. With two games left and IU needing to win both to ensure bowl eligibility, Allen is as trusting as ever in his team’s abilities.
“They believe,” Allen said. “They believe in each other, they believe in themselves and they believe in what we’re doing.”
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