CHAMPAIGN — It was only fitting with one of the all-time greatest linebackers in football history in town that the Illinois Fighting Illini would pitch a shutout against Chattanooga.
Former Illini great Dick Butkus, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, had to be impressed as the Illini held the Mocs to just 142 yards of total offense as Illinois completed an undefeated non-conference portion of its season with a 31-0 triumph on Thursday night at Memorial Stadium.
“We have a tremendous group of players on defense that play with a lot of confidence,” Bielema said. “They have a lot of faith in their coaches … who continue to find ways to motivate the guys. I think they’ll get stronger as the year goes on because they are intelligent players that understand the advantage of film and tells.”
Not only was Thursday’s victory the first shutout for Illinois since beating Western Illinois 44-0 on Sept. 12, 2015 when Bill Cubit was the coach, but this group of Illini have not allowed a touchdown in three home games this season.
“We want to win all our home games. We know defense could be a big part of that, defense wins games,” said Illinois sophomore defensive tackle Jer’Zhan Newton, who had 8 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss. “So, if they are not scoring in the game, than they can’t win the game. We take pride in that.”
Chattanooga (3-1) only had two real scoring opportunities against Illinois.
The Mocs, who ran just five plays on the Illini side of the 50, saw its only trip into the red zone end with a second-quarter Quan Martin interception in the end zone and then in the third quarter Chattanooga kicker Andrew Southard missed a 43 -yard attempt.
“We talk about not letting those guys in the end zone. That’s our mentality and that’s the results you are going to get,” Martin said. “We take a lot of pride in that, getting the shut out.
“It means a lot, we prepare the right way, that’s what happens when you prepare for the team the right way and not look past anyone.”
And it was a total team effort for the Illini as they had eight tackles for loss, four sacks of Chattanooga quarterback Preston Hutchinson, nine quarterback hits, five pass breakups and two interceptions.
“We got beat up tonight,” said Chattanooga coach Rust Wright.
The Mocs are the second team in a row that the Illini have ‘beaten up’ coming off a 24-3 triumph over Virginia on Sept. 10.
In four games this season, the Illinois defense has allowed just 32 points (8.0 points per game) but it’s the 23-20 loss at Indiana that is keeping this team from an undefeated season. That was a game that the Illini allowed the Hoosiers to drive 75 yards in the final minutes for the game-winning touchdown.
“We learn from film every week,” Martin said. “We learn from that Indiana game. We knew we were a better defense than what we showed out there at the end of that game. It’s about taking it one week at a time and preparing for our opponents the right way.”
But Thursday’s win over Chattanooga, the No. 9 rated team in the FCS Coaches’ Poll, wasn’t just about the defense.
Illinois running back Chase Brown ran for 108 yards and a touchdown. It’s the fifth straight game that Brown has rushed for more than 100 yards and he is the first running back in school history to accomplish that feat.
“There are a lot of first going on with this program,” Bielema said. “I’m blown away that Chase is the first back in university history to have rushed for more than 100 yards in five straight games. I had no idea. That is just what we do. Ever since I’ve been coaching, you are going to have a guy rush for 100 yards. That is how you win football games.”
Additionally, Pat Bryant and Isaiah Williams had more than 100 receiving yards with Bryant finishing with 112 and Williams totaling 103. For Bryant, a sophomore from Jacksonville, Fla., the six receptions and his 112 receiving yards were career-bests.
Coupled with Brown’s rushing is the first time in program history that the Illini have had a back run for more than a 100 and had two receivers eclipse 100 receiving yards
“Those are stats that I can’t believe are firsts,” Bielema said. “We are not there … but I’m excited about where we are — we are just beginning to understand who we are.
“I really like the way this group works.”
Brown’s career rushing yardage is now 2,167 as he past Illini great Red Grange into 14th place in program history. He is still 1,938 yards behind all-time leader Robert Holcombe.
Nothing that Brown has accomplished surprises Illinois center Alex Pihlstrom.
“I expect to see that all of the time,” he said. “He can do anything. He’s a complete back, and I just love blocking for Chase Brown.”
Another lineman that helped open those holes for Brown was former Danville standout Julian Pearl, who made his 16th career start for the Illini.
Caleb Griffin, also a former Danville standout, was 4-for-4 on extra points and the junior split the uprights on a 34-yard field goal in the first quarter.
Up next for Illinois is a trip to Madison, Wisc., next Saturday to face Bielema’s former team, the Wisconsin Badgers. Kickoff at Camp Randall Stadium is set for 11 am