Illinois defense looks for 60-minute spark

Vic Koenning isn't the type of coach to ever ease up on the throttle.

That's a good thing, too. This season, Illinois doesn't have the luxury to relax on defense, even for a split second.

"There's really not a middle ground for us," Koenning, the team's first-year defensive coordinator, told me Wednesday. "We've got to be hammer-down, playing as hard as we can play with a high motor and almost be electric -- or we're not very good."

Koenning's defense has been very good for stretches this fall and certainly is showing improvement from 2009, when the unit ranked 91st nationally (403.3 ypg). Through four games, Illinois ranks in the top half of the Big Ten in several defensive statistical categories, including scoring (T-4th, 18 ppg) and red zone efficiency (4th, 75 percent conversions).

The Illini boast five players among the Big Ten's top 17 in tackles per game, and linebacker Martez Wilson finally seems to be reaching his immense potential after missing all but one game last year with a neck injury.

Asked to assess the defense through four games, Koenning, mindful of the team's 2-2 record, replied, "About .500."

"In our two losses, we had chances to close out the games," he continued. "If we had done that, we'd have been way ahead of where I thought we could have been."

The high-energy Koenning has provided a jolt to an underachieving defense, but the veteran coach also recognizes that players can't be in fifth gear all the time. Koenning said the defense has played an electric level about 80 percent of the snaps.

After short-circuiting for stretches in the opener against Missouri -- "The guys didn't know how to do it yet," Koenning said -- Illini defenders have increased their percentage of peak-energy plays. Last week, Illinois limited Ohio State's offense to 14 points in the first 51 minutes and just 290 yards for the game. Ohio State came to Champaign averaging 49.3 points but mustered only 24 against Koenning's crew.

But there still were lulls, like Terrelle Pryor's 66-yard run in the first quarter.

"You try and figure out a way to motivate them," Koenning said. "I can holler loud but I can’t holler that loud. We’ve got to bring along the next guys and we have to keep developing depth because if a guy's not playing up to what we need to do, you got to sub another guy in."

Depth is unquestionably Illinois' biggest obstacle right now. The Illini lost two projected starters in the secondary, safety Supo Sanni and cornerback Terry Hawthorne, to injuries before the season (Sanni's is season-ending).

The injury losses forced Illinois to shuffle its personnel, like moving Justin Green from running back to defensive back. Illinois' depth really hurts in the red zone, despite the decent numbers so far.

"We haven't been worth [crud] in my thoughts," Koenning said of the red zone defense. "We don't have enough safeties or enough D-linemen to play goal-line package, so have to continue to play our base package. It’s been something we need to do a better job of and work on it.

"But in fairness to us, we're handicapped down there."

It'll be interesting to see how the Illini fare in the red zone Saturday at Penn State, which has had major problems inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Penn State ranks last in the Big Ten and tied for 114th nationally in red zone offense, converting only two-thirds of its chances into points.

Don't be surprised to see Illinois try to turn up the heat on Penn State freshman quarterback Rob Bolden on Saturday.

"We feel like the quarterback, no disrespect, but he's not Terrelle Pryor yet," Koenning said. "But as far as the other positions, we feel Penn State may be as strong or stronger than the team we just played [Ohio State]. That's the respect level we have."

Speaking of respect, Illinois can gain even more by winning in State College for the first time in team history.

To do so, the Illini will look for a spark from their defense.

"You've got to challenge them to be great," Koenning said. "If you're going to challenge them to be average, you get average."