Players to watch
DE Houston Bates, LB Jonathan Brown, LB Mason Monheim, SS Earnest Thomas III
As the Illinois offense has undergone a veritable renaissance in the early going of the 2013 season, it's no secret that the team's defensive development has lagged behind. After giving up 32.1 points and 193.9 rushing yards per game in 2012, the Illini have surrendered 649 passing yards in just two games, and yielded 34 points to FCS Southern Illinois. However, a strong showing against Cincinnati (the Bearcats scored just 17 points, despite accumulating 308 passing yards and 148 rushing yards) has inspired hope among the Illinois faithful that the defense can successfully adopt an ever-dangerous "bend but don't break" philosophy.
If that's what the Illini must do to succeed on defense, they will surely need to improve upon their opponent red zone conversion rate, which ranked 63rd in 2012. Specifically, Illini opponents scored 35 touchdowns and nine field goals on 54 trips into the opposing 20-yard line. This year, Illinois' opponents have scored just five touchdowns on 10 trips into the red zone for a conversion rate of 50 percent, which is a figure that would have tied Ohio State for fourth in the conference in 2012. One of the Washington offense's emphases in the offseason was improving its red zone production, which ranked just 68th in the nation last year; seeing which team has improved the most in this regard relative to 2012 will provide an interesting subplot to Saturday's game.
On the defensive line, the Illini are working to replace the production of 2012 graduate Michael Buchanan, a defensive end who was named second-team all-conference following the conclusion of the season. It's no secret how he earned that recognition: in his four-year career at Illinois, Buchanan accumulated 26 tackles for loss to go along with 14 sacks. His heirs on the defensive line are DE Tim Kynard, NT Jake Howe, DT Austin Teitsma and LEO Houston Bates. Bates plays a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role that is analogous to that of Washington's Cory Littleton and Josh Shirley, and while his first year as a starter has been relatively quiet in terms of production, he certainly possesses the physical skill (6-3, 250 lbs.) to make noise at the line of scrimmage.
Illinois' linebacking crew returns two starters from last year's squad in STAR Mike Svetina and MLB Mason Monheim, with WLB Jonathan Brown rounding out the crew. (Eric Finney is listed as a co-starter next to Svetina, for what it's worth.) The early returns from this season show Brown and Monheim leading the charge with 23 and 18 tackles, respectively. Monheim also leads the team in tackles for loss (2.5) and sacks (1.0), so neutralizing him via pulling linemen and wide receiver crack blocks will likely be at the top of Eric Kiesau and Steve Sarkisian's to-do list. All of Illinois' linebackers are stout, measuring at least 6-1 and 230 lbs. (with the exception of Finney, who comes in at just 215 lbs.), but none figure to have talent or skills beyond anything that Washington's offense has had to deal with in the past.
In the secondary, "youth" is the name of the game. True sophomore cornerbacks V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence both saw limited action as freshmen backups last year, and are acclimating to their new starting roles. Washington showed great success in getting the ball to John Ross and Jaydon Mickens on the perimeter of the field against Boise State, and the game plan against Illinois will likely call for more of the same until the young corners prove that they can get off of their blocks and limit those gains. Redshirt freshman Taylor Barton, the free safety, already has a pick and eight tackles to his name, and at 6-1, 215 lbs., he has the physical tools to play at a high level. Beside him is the similarly sized Earnest Thomas III (6-2, 210 lbs.), the lone returning starter in the secondary. Thomas was perhaps the most effective component of Illinois' backfield in 2012, totaling 69 tackles and forcing three fumbles, and he has already defended three passes in 2013. Illinois will no doubt lean on him to help stop what appears to be a potent Washington passing attack.
As always, thanks to College Football Statistics, ESPN and USA Today's College Football Injury Report for the relevant data that went into this article. You can follow me on Twitter by clicking below.