CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — During tackle Rob Bain’s first two seasons at Illinois, the defense he was part of lacked an identity.
Statistically, it was the Big Ten’s worst in a number of categories, and a key reason the Illini won 10 games combined in 2013 and ’14.
Lovie Smith’s best Chicago defenses were creators of chaos — picking off passes, forcing fumbles and scoring points. Smith hopes some of that brand of NFL defense pays off at Illinois, where he will coach his first game Saturday against Murray State.
That philosophy is distilled in one symbol hanging on the team’s meeting room wall. It’s a football on a spring, mounted on plaque that bears the words STRIP, PUNCH, YANK and, above them all, TAKEAWAYS.
“We talk a lot about takeaways,” Smith said. “Defensive players don’t come through the doors unless they hit (the ball).”
For Bain, defensive identity starts with Smith’s Tampa 2, essentially the same base defense the Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers ran when he was in charge of those teams and played by defensive legends like Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice and John Lynch — players the Illini say they now regularly watch clips of. Bain says linemen will need to be “disruptors,” creating opportunities for the players behind them.
“When you have a defensive line, just a defense designed to constantly get pressure on the quarterback and put the offense in hectic situations, I think that it’s definitely a big advantage and benefit to the secondary, where they can kind of just sit back, see what’s going on,” he said. “And there’s more opportunities for them to make plays.”
Illinois’ defense has frequently been a liability the past few seasons.
In 2013 and 2014 it was at or near the back of the conference in points given up, often leaving the Illini offense to try to outgun high-scoring opponents.
Similarly, the Illini didn’t create many turnovers those years, finishing with a minus-10 turnover ratio in 2013 and minus-3 in 2014.
Last season was better, with 21 total turnovers, four more than the offense gave up.
But at their best, Smith’s Bears were turnover machines. The 2004 and 2005 teams both allowed fewer than 20 points a game. Between them those teams forced 63 turnovers and scored nine touchdowns over 32 regular season games.
Through training camp, a lot of the talk among Illini players focused on Bain and the rest of the line: fellow tackle Chunky Clements and defensive ends Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot. Between them they had 36.5 tackles for losses and 12.5 sacks, with eight of those sacks Smoot’s.
They say they believe they can be one of the best lines in the country.
After facing them in practice, Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt thinks they’re ready to create the kind of disruption Bain talked about.
“We’re going against a great defensive line every day. When they’re in your face and it’s more game-like, you’ve got to react to it and get the ball out of your hands,” he said.
Late in one of the last days of preseason camp, a ball thrown to a cross-field receiver popped high in the air. A defender somewhere along the way got a touch with a hand or an arm or a helmet. From behind the end zone it wasn’t clear what body part or even which defender was responsible in the mass of bodies swarming the ball.
The ball came down and a defender pulled it in. It was one of those hectic moments Bain mentioned and the defense has the ball.
“More or less all defensive philosophies are the same — everyone’s got to be accountable for their gaps,” Bain explained. “But I think this defense hones in especially on everyone running to the ball, the effort, the attitude, and everyone being playmakers.”
Follow David Mercer on Twitter: @davidmercerAP
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