CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois defense was supposed to be different this year. The big plays, countless yards and excessive points were supposed to be in the past. This group was older, wiser and had a bravado to it that was supposed to translate on the field.
The Illini won their first two games, and largely benefited from their defensive play. Last week, though, the defense was picked apart by Eastern Michigan, which turned out to be a prequel to Saturday's 42-38 home loss against Nebraska in the Big Ten opener.
Yes, Illinois (2-2, 0-1) forced four turnovers and scored touchdowns on the ensuing offensive possession three times, and put the ball in the offense's hands with two minutes left to put together a drive that would have won the game — it ultimately ended in a three-and-out.
But Nebraska carved up the defense for 674 yards, and it would have been higher had Nebraska not lost yards on its final possession to run out the clock. Quarterback Adrian Martinez accounted for 446 yards and three touchdowns by himself, and receiver JD Spielman had 159 receiving yards. The holes that had been exposed in pass coverage in each of the last two weeks were in the spotlight again.
"I’m disappointed in (Saturday). Period," Illinois head coach and defensive coordinator Lovie Smith said. "Our team is better. We were better defensively tonight, but not as good as we need to be."
In the last 10 Big Ten games, Illinois has allowed 40 or more points seven times, and has allowed 500 or more yards six times. Smith maintains the defense is better, but it wasn't enough on Saturday. Nebraska ran 98 offensive plays and was 11 of 19 on third-down conversions.
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All offseason, Smith and his defensive group insisted there had been improvement, and Smith isn't walking that back. In comparison to what he's had in the past, this group is better, he said.
“I think we have a chance now to win," Smith said. "In year’s past, I don’t think we had a chance. We have a chance now. Absolutely we do. We’re a better football team. (Saturday) it didn’t turn out that way. There were a lot of factors that led to that. Maybe it’s just a really good offensive team, but we are definitely a better defensive football team than we’ve been."
Twice in his post-game interview with the assembled media, junior safety Tony Adams mentioned the word "recipe." He said he still believes in the tenets and fundamental philosophies of Smith's defense, and the turnover goal was met on Saturday, but there's more to work on.
“I believe in everything Coach Smith is teaching," Adams said. "I think there’s a lot of guys on this team who believe it, too. We’ve just got to be more disciplined. We were getting off our landmarks, and we were missing tackles. We’ve just got to fix the little things."
Illinois had 13 tackles for a loss and two sacks, but missed key tackles on Nebraska plays that led to big gains and couldn't get off the field to catch a breather, particularly late in the third quarter after a 14-point lead disappeared. The missed tackles on defense, which Smith said "really hurt," allowed Nebraska drives to continue on, keeping the Illinois defense on the field. That issue was compounded with the fact that the Illinois offense was just 1-of-11 on third-down attempts, which put the defense back on the field.
“When you lose, and they make some plays at the end, you know what the answers are going to be from your questions, but the answer is we didn't make plays when we had opportunities to," Smith said. "We let an opportunity get away from us when we had a 14-point lead. When that happens, you can imagine the things that we did wrong. We didn’t make plays when we had opportunities to. We were in position."
Illinois has an open week before traveling to Minnesota. There won't be wholesale changes, Smith said. There was disappointment as the players left the Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Performance Center late Saturday night and teetering on Sunday morning. There was some surprise that a defense that's experienced and knows the system made both mental and physical mistakes.
“Surprised? Yeah, I would say," linebacker Dele Harding said. "There was a couple of basic plays that we shored up during the week just got out of our hands, per se. We’ve just got to get back to the drawing board."
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25