Illini football: where they can vastly improve, greatly overachieve, and yet massively disappoint, all at the same time. Despite their getting gashed by Purdue this past Saturday, this Illini defense is still special. And all great defenses, throughout the history of football, have had a nickname.
But for this 2022 Illini football team, their perfect moniker is already taken. Ever heard of the term “No-Name Defense?” The phrase refers to the Miami Dolphins of the early-1970s, and it originated with Dallas Cowboys coaching legend Tom Landry.
While the Dolphins had that perfect season in 1972, their defensive unit lacked high-profile players, as their the only Hall of Famer, linebacker Nick Buoniconti, really made his name more so with the division rival New England Patriots. Also, Buoniconti didn’t get his Canton call until 30 years after that perfect season.
But the No Name Defense is the perfect encapsulation phrase for this Illinois team.
Illini football coach Bret Bielema said it himself, following a very pragmatic 9-6 win over Iowa on October 8.
“It’s kind of like the Bad News Bears, I’ve said it several times,” Bielema explained. “We don’t have a marquee player, we just have a lot of good players that play pretty well.”
Indeed this Illini football team embodies Gestalt; they are more than the sum of their parts.
The nation’s number one defense in scoring against and yardage against, entering last weekend, was the only team in the country not to have surrendered a touchdown at home through the first six weeks of the season.
“That statistic is amazing when you think about it, credit to our defensive coaches, defensive players, the responses they have,” Bielema continued (in early October)
“We have the best fire department in the history of the United States, our defense just continues to come in and put out fires, left and right, and not even bat an eye.”
It’s a bit hyperbolic of a statement, sure, but otherwise Bielema is right- this defense quietly keeps doing its job, bailing out the offense (and the rest of the team) when needed.
But Illini football, up until the last weekend, still boasted the nation’s number one defense and the nation’s leading rusher, in Chase Brown.
Bielema listed some of the individuals, on defense, who brought it against Iowa.
“I thought Tarique Barnes played really well today, Johnnie and Keith continue to impress, Calin Avery did some things, Gabe Jacas continues to flourish.”
Let’s take a closer look at the individuals that comprise this no name defense.
“The Law Firm”
The nickname refers to the defensive tackle pairing of Jer’Zhan “Johnny” Newton (aforementioned by Bielema) and Keith Randolph Jr., one of the top defensive tackle pairings in the nation
Their combined 40 pressures are the most, nationally, among any interior defensive line duo.
Newton, the #2 graded interior defensive lineman in the nation according to PFF, leads the nation in QB hits with 12, and he’s also tied atop the national leaderboard in QB pressures with 28. Randolph is #42 on the Pro Football Focus list.
Playing better this year, like Bielema said, but he’s never really come close to living up to his recruiting hype.
One of the biggest recruits that Lovie Smith ever landed, he was ranked the No. 9 defensive tackle in the nation by Rivals, No. 16 by ESPN and No. 23 by 247Sports.
As he possesses the highest NFL Draft stock of anybody on this team, we’ll cover him separately in another post.
He’s the only defender on this Illini football team who is among the national leaders, for any traditional statistic.
(The other guys are really more so-called “next gen stats”).
Ranked No. 9 recruit in Illinois by ESPN coming out of beautiful Bolingbrook Illinois, he’s been among the best in the country in accruing interceptions.
The identical twin brother of Chase Brown, he was 2021 All-Big Ten honorable mention (media and coaches)
Paul M. Banks is the owner/manager of The Bank (TheSportsBank.Net) and author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America,” as well as “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry.”
He has regularly appeared in WGN, Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune, and he co-hosts the After Extra Time podcast, part of Edge of the Crowd Network. Follow him and the website on Twitter and Instagram.Follow paulmbanks