CHAMPAIGN — One week ago, Illinois’ defense looked woefully young, often unsure and dangerously out of position. It nearly cost the team a victory.
Saturday night, that same defense was a fast-moving force. They left the field knowing they’re the main reason Illinois is 2-0.
With a pair of true freshmen defensive ends setting a disruptive tone, Illinois made play after play and stymied Western Kentucky 20-7 at Memorial Stadium.
The Hilltoppers never resembled the high octane offense that last season averaged 45 points and won 11 games.
Linebacker Julian Jones scored a touchdown on a 10-yard interception return, quarterback Chayce Crouch hurdled into the end zone for another score.
“Defensively, it’s about taking the ball away,” Illini coach Lovie Smith said. “That pick six by Julian was big. We were playing a good offense and our defense kept them under control.”
Illinois looked like it might hand Western Kentucky its first shutout since Sept. 8, 2012. And that came when the Hilltoppers played at Alabama.
But a fourth-quarter interception by Crouch gave Western Kentucky the ball at the Illini 29 and a touchdown run by quarterback Mike White ended the shutout hopes.
During the week leading up to the game, Smith said something many coaches claim: “The biggest improvement should come from week one to week two.”
Although that’s often a cliché, it proved to be absolutely true for the Illini defense.
In week one, in a 24-21 victory over Ball State, Illinois’ defense was nearly helpless as Ball State converted on 12 of its first 15 third-down situations.
In week two — against an offense that was supposed to be more dynamic — the defense allowed Western Kentucky to convert on just two of 12 third downs. And the Hilltoppers failed on both of its fourth-down attempts.
Better run defense, an improved pass rush and tighter pass coverage made a world of difference.
A pair of field goals by Chase McLaughlin gave Illinois a 6-0 lead when the defense turned it up another notch late in the second quarter.
The only touchdown in the first half came on a play Smith and defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson have pledged will become a trademark for this team.
Pinned deep by a Illini punt inside the 5-yard line, Western Kentucky quarterback Mike White was about to be swarmed in the end zone by defensive end Bobby Roundtree and linebackers Del’Shawn Phillips and Tre Watson. White’s hurried pass sailed right into the arms of Jones, who sprinted into the end zone for a 13-0 lead.
If Illinois’ defense had a moment of doubt, it was caused by its own aggressive play. Watson was ejected for targeting when he decked Western Kentucky receiver Nacarius Fant with 1:05 to go in the first half.
That penalty, and another 15-yarder on the next play, pushed the ball to the Illini 13. The second penalty came when Illini cornerback Cam Watkins was charged for a hit out of bounds on Fant.
But the defense let Western Kentucky advance no further when freshman defensive end Roundtree sacked White, knocking the ball free in the process. The fumble was recovered by Illini defensive tackle Jamal Milan.
Initially, the officials ruled the play an incomplete pass. But a video review confirmed the fumble, giving the Illini the ball and protecting its 13-0 lead at the half.
Finally, the offense mounted a long and productive drive to open the second half.
Neatly mixing passes and runs, Illinois moved 84 yards on 15 plays, scoring when Crouch ran from the 9-yard line. He found the end zone when he took off from the 3 and hurdled over the goal line, increasing the Illini lead to 20-0.
The longest gain on the drive was a 16-yard pass from Crouch to Mike Dudek.
By then, Western Kentucky was having its own troubles. Dropped passes, penalties and trouble dealing with Illinois’ pesky defense created a series of punts.
Western Kentucky became one-dimensional when it was able to run for just six total yards on 16 carries.
Illinois had just 300 yards in offense, but freshman running back Mike Epstein carried 21 times for 111 yards. Crouch was 14 of 25 for 107 yards.
But it was the defense that kept the Western Kentucky offense off-balance.
Isaiah Gay, the other freshman starting at defensive end, was in White’s face also. Earlier in the week, Smith dreamed of a time when the ends are juniors — bigger, stronger, more knowledgeable.
“They’re going to be a handful,” he said.
On Saturday, they already were.
Illinois started seven true freshmen, the most in school history.
A remade offensive line seemed to be an improvement and it included two true freshmen getting starts on the same side. Larry Boyd was moved from guard to tackle and he was joined by freshman guard Alex Palczewski, who did not play in the opener.
Gabe Megginson, who started at tackle last week, shifted to guard.
Hurricane watch: Illinois is scheduled to play South Florida in Tampa at 6 p.m. Friday. But with uncertainty regarding the impact Hurricane Irma will have on the state, that’s about all that is known.
Illini AD Josh Whitman and South Florida AD Mark Harlan have been talking and will continue to do so as the hurricane’s path and amount of damage becomes more apparent Sunday.
Illinois has let South Florida know they could host the game if it becomes necessary to move it. But South Florida will surely do anything it can to play, since it cancelled this weekend’s game at Connecticut. That game will not be rescheduled.
Harlan told Whitman he was busy getting his own family located to a safer spot as the hurricane took aim on Florida.
Smith has a special interest in the hurricane. The former head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers still owns a home in Tampa.
Warm welcome: The wife of Western Kentucky coach Mike Sanford posted on Facebook earlier Saturday that she and her husband received flowers from Smith and his wife, MaryAnne, welcoming them with the message, “Let’s have a great game tonight.”