CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — Lovie Smith and Hardy Nickerson are two names synonymous with defense but it’s the unit that’s struggled most this season for the Illinois football team. The Illini are 124th in the country out of 129 FBS teams in total defense. It’s a regression from the first season with Smith as head coach and Nickerson as defensive coordinator, back in 2016 the Illini were 61st in total defense. Last season in year two under the duo, Illinois was 85th in total defense.
“You know execution can definitely be improved,” Nickerson said. “That and when we’re executing properly we’re in the right places at the right time and that’s what we’re aiming for.”
One of the biggest concerns is the Illini’s inability to stop the run. The team is 13th in the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing opponents to run for an average 5.14 yards per carry. Smith says it’s a combination of all facets of the game defensively.
“It’s hard to say just one thing,” Smith said. “Run defense, pass defense, taking the ball away more. Doing better on third downs, not giving up the big play. I’m going to be saying those things too when we’re playing good defense.”
Illinois’ defense will once again be tested in a big way at Wisconsin, especially against the run. Badgers standout back Jonathan Taylor is the nation’s second leading rusher, putting up an average of 158.3 yards per game.