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ILLINOIS REPORT

This defense isn't anything fancy

December 30, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Watching video of Illinois from this season, USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian wanted to see if he should expect much in the way of blitzes, stunts and shifting formations.

"The funny thing when you look at a defense is that you can see if the defense wants to do a lot of things," he said. "Some defenses don't do a lot of things."

Count the Fighting Illini among the latter.

Big guys along the line. A smart middle linebacker. Some talent in the secondary. There isn't much fancy about the unit that will confront quarterback John David Booty and the rest of the USC offense in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.

As Illini defensive tackle Chris Norwell said: "We hit hard. We're consistent."

The numbers show that the Illini ranked a decent but unspectacular 41st in total defense nationally. They were better at keeping opponents from scoring, giving up 19.5 points a game.

Co-defensive coordinator Curt Mallory said his team aims to blitz and mix coverages just often enough to keep opponents honest. These are but small gimmicks in a base defense that was installed when Coach Ron Zook arrived in Champaign in 2005.

"We haven't changed in three years," Mallory said. "We haven't changed at all."

If there was a high point for the Illini this season, they held opponents to 114.5 rushing yards a game, which led to obvious passing downs. And that led to success pressuring the quarterback.

With 3.1 sacks a game, Illinois ranked tied for 12th in the nation. Even more impressive, they spread the wealth.

Defensive end Will Davis led the team with 9 1/2 sacks, but fellow linemen David Lindquist and Doug Pilcher had 4 1/2 each. Reserves Derek Walker and Mike Ware combined for five more.

In all, eight players had at least 2 1/2 sacks.

"Most teams have one guy who's their predominant guy," USC offensive tackle Sam Baker said. "They're getting pressure from a lot of different places."

The Illini like the idea of facing a conventional pocket passer in Booty.

"It's a whole lot easier when you just have to worry about someone dropping back and scrambling for five yards instead of 20 yards," safety Kevin Mitchell said.

But the Trojans' offensive line ranked 17th in the nation at protecting the quarterback, giving up 1.3 sacks a game.

Linebacker Brit Miller doesn't see a need to respond with anything particularly complicated.

"They play a physical brand of ball," he said. "And for us to stop them, we're going to have to play more physical."

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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