Ball State defensive end Anthony Winbush celebrates after back-to-back sacks against the University of Illinois on Sept. 2, 2017. Winbush also had seven tackles during the Caridnals 24-21 loss. Robby General, DN
Defense steps up in Ball State's loss to Illinois
Going into halftime, the University of Illinois finished two consecutive scoring drives, leading Ball State 16-7.
But the Illini scored just one other time in the game after the Cardinals dominating defensive performance coming out of the locker room.
In the third quarter, Ball State didn’t give up a single first down, forcing Illinois to three consecutive three-and-outs. The Illini were close to converting in the final minute of the half after running back Kendrick Foster rushed for nine yards, but that was put to a stop after two consecutive sacks from redshirt senior defensive end Anthony Winbush.
Total yards against - 216
Plays against - 49
Time on field - 23:27
Total yards against - 375
Plays against - 85
Time on field - 36:33
“That’s to be expected out of a guy like him,” Ball State head coach Mike Neu said. “He brings his best in critical moments, and I thought our defensive line overall did a very solid job today.”
Winbush finished with three sacks, coming off 8.5 last season, which ranked third in the Mid-American Conference in 2016. On the day, Ball State had nine total sacks against Illinois.
The Illini executed on just two out of 10 third-down conversions on the day, gaining 216 yards of total offense in 23 minutes and 27 seconds of work.
Three-and-outs were the key to Ball State’s success against Illinois, and it’s something that redshirt sophomore linebacker Jacob White said they want to do every time they’re on the field.
“Whenever you play defense you want three and outs as much as possible,” White said. “We want to give our offense the ball, have them chew up the clock and have them put up points on the board and that’s sort of what we did. We’ve got to do more of it this upcoming season.”
White led the defense with nine total tackles, five solo tackles and a sack. For him, the defense played “OK,” because it wasn’t the final result they wanted.
Coming into the game, Ball State was one of just four FBS programs that featured zero career linebacker starts on it’s roster. The linebacking play was in question after losing Zack Ryan, Aaron Taylor and Sean Wiggins to graduation.
After today’s performance, White said those questions should be put to rest.
“Obviously you want experience, but that’s not always the case at the end of the day,” White said. “You know, I feel our linebacking core is great, I wouldn’t trade them for anyone else or anyone with more experience, I don’t care about any of that.”
Moving forward, White said it’s back to the drawing board after giving up a late fourth quarter touchdown and two-point conversion, which gave Illinois a 24-21 lead and eventual victory.
But Neu said he’s proud of the way Ball State played run defense against Illinois, complementing the team’s gap play and way they handled a running offense.
“There was a little bit of an unknown, but yet I felt great about our defensive staff preparing our guys with tacklings drills every single day,” Neu said. “We’ll look at the tape, but I thought our guys played hard and did a solid job from a tackling standpoint.”
Coming within a field goal of a win against a Big Ten opponent like Illinois, Winbush says it leaves Ball State with something to prove.
“That definitely put a big chip on our shoulder because we feel like we can win against anybody,” Winbush said. “That just proved we need to make sure we finish the next game. We’ll keep going ahead and make sure we finish every play and execute.”
Ball State’s next chance to finish is against the University of Alabama-Birmingham on Sept. 9 at Scheumann Stadium.