Defense answers Walker’s challenge

Defensive end Dwayne Missouri might not have been aware of the historical implications, but he almost made his team’s prophecy a reality.

“Actually, we came out and said we wanted to get a shutout,” Missouri said. “That’s big words to say and every team says that every week, but I felt like we had a very good plan against them.”

The last time the Wildcats won by as many points as they did in Saturday’s 61-23 whipping of Illinois was back in 1970. Coincidentally, it was a 48-0 victory against the Fighting Illini.

The Cats defense, which ranked 87th in the nation, allowing 31.1 points per game, stifled the Fighting Illini offense with its best showing of the year. Had it not been for a bad snap in the second quarter — which NU punter J.J. Standring pushed out of the end zone for a safety — the Illini would have returned home with a goose-egg against the Cats’ first-team defense, which was mostly pulled after three quarters.

For the game, NU held Illinois to 362 total yards — 116 on the ground and 246 through the air. After NU’s starters stepped off the field in the fourth quarter, Illinois took advantage, scoring three touchdowns in as many drives and picking up 193 yards.

So do the math: The Cats’ first-string defense held Illinois to 169 yards and zero points.

“I thought we played awful well on defense,” Walker said. “As all the ones were in there, I don’t think (Illinois) got a whole lot of action. They made a play or two here and there, but they didn’t really score on our one defense.”

Added senior Harold Blackmon: “I think it was a pretty good defensive performance. As a defense, we strive for perfection and obviously we didn’t hit that today. But I feel like, all in all, we did what we had to do to win the game.”

Starting with a quick three-and-out stop on the first possession of the game, the Cats allowed a mere six first downs and 111 yards in the first half.

Further, NU kept the Illini offense in its territory for almost the entire first half. After the safety, Standring booted the ball to Illinois’ 41-yard line and Christian Morton returned it to NU’s 33, but that was the only Illinois drive that reached NU territory before halftime.

The Cats front seven constantly pressured redshirt freshman quarterback Dustin Ward — not heralded signal-caller Kurt Kittner, who did not suit up after suffering a concussion last week.

Missouri, Conrad Emmerich and Pete Chapman each got a piece of Ward in the pocket, forcing the Illini back a total of 13 yards. Chapman’s sack in the second quarter knocked loose a fumble that Emmerich recovered.

“We felt we had a handle on what they were going to do,” said Missouri, who also blocked a punt in the second quarter. “We knew with their second-string quarterback, they weren’t going to take too many chances for taking it down the field and making them win the game.”

The seniors on defense — BlackMonday, Emmerich, Missouri and defensive tackle Javiar Collins — all performed well, knowing the game was their final outing at Ryan Field.

And that added a touch of motivation.

“(NU defensive coordinator Jerry Brown) told us it’s your last go-around,” Emmerich said. “It’s your last time at Ryan Field to do your thing within the confines of the defense. It was sad walking out there — actually, walking back in because it was the last time. It was a lot of fun. A lot of guys stepped up.”

The seniors weren’t the only ones draining the Illini. Sophomore linebacker Pat Durr, who filled in for starter Kevin Bentley, led the pack with 11 tackles.

Durr also caught a deflected pass to Illinois wideout Greg Lewis in the fourth quarter for his first career interception. Durr dashed along the sideline and dived almost four yards to reach the end zone, but officials marked the ball at the 1-yard line.

In disbelief, Durr stared at the sky and stretched his arms, while teammates Sean Wieber and Napoleon Harris came over and bumped his helmet in consolation.

Two plays later, tailback Damien Anderson scrambled that extra yard for a touchdown to extend NU’s lead to 47-2.

“I was in. You guys watch the replay,” Durr said, asking for confirmation. “I just saw a couple of Illinois guys coming in and I just tried to lay it out. … Watch the replay.”

The Illini dumped the Cats last year 29-7 at Champaign. Some NU players dwelled on the loss, which featured an in-state rivalry and some Illinois players taking reported cheap shots at the NU corps during the game.

This year, the Cats defense showed no mercy.

“Even at halftime (when NU led 28-2), we went into the locker room saying, ‘We have to finish,'” said BlackMonday, who wore a T-shirt that read “Finish” across the chest. Walker, who has also made a T-shirt based on his “Trust” theme this year, distributed the “Finish” shirt to the players before Saturday’s game.

“You have to finish and that was the only thing on our mind.”