Illini defense leads team to first win over AP top 25 team since 2007.
Somebody find the game ball and hand it to Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and his gang. With an offense largely stagnant in the second half, the Illini defense produced the big plays in the 17-14 victory over No. 22 Arizona State Saturday night in a non-conference football game before a crowd of 50,669 at Memorial Stadium. Defensive end Whitney Mercilus forced a fumble that led to the go-ahead 41-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter, and the Illini held off the Sun Devils for their first win over an AP top 25 team since 2007. Not bad for a defense that didn't look as sharp as the offense during Camp Rantoul, but bandit linebacker Michael Buchanan, linebacker Jonathan Brown and Mercilus made a string of big plays to keep the Illini in the game. "I'm so proud of the defense,'' Illini coach Ron Zook said. "They had a great plan. The defense played great. Vic called a great game. He had them coming from all different directions. "I know our offense will be really good. Now I know the defense will be really good. '' The Illini finished with six sacks, and Illinois pestered 6-foot-8 Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler while limiting the high-powered Sun Devils to one score in each half. Wins over Arkansas State and South Dakota State can only do so much for your reputation. This one might convince folks it's OK to believe in these Illini. "We're taking some steps,'' Zook said. "This is a great win for us. It's a great win for this season. We're going to get a bunch more of these. This ain't the end of the season. We're going to build on it and enjoy it. "It makes everyone understand that Illinois is a little better than what people think.'' The last win over an AP top 25 team came over No. 1 Ohio State in 2007 put the Illini on the way to the Rose Bowl. The Illini entered with a 10-game losing streak to teams in the AP poll. The Illini (3-0) started the season with three consecutive wins for the first time since 2001, when Kurt Kittner and Co., won the Big Ten title and played in the Sugar Bowl. That's not to say the Illini are ready to be called Big Ten contenders, but don't look now: they're already halfway to bowl eligibility without going any farther than Camp Rantoul. Illinois hosts Western Michigan (2-1) next Saturday (2:30 p.m., BTN) in the fourth of five home games to start the regular season. "We hadn't been 3-0 since I've been here,'' said Illini wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, who caught the 16-yard touchdown pass for the go-ahead touchdown with 9 minutes 59 seconds left. "Tonight, we're just going to live in the moment, but we should be ranked -- definitely. "It was a team effort, but the defense really did their thing. They saved us on offense.'' Mercilus also had two sacks, but the defensive player of the game was Brown, a sophomore linebacker from Memphis who had 1.5 sacks, 3.5 tackles for a loss, an interception and a hit on Osweiler that forced another interception. "It seems like we're always the underdog,'' Brown said. "Going into the season, we were ranked 12th as a linebacking corps in the Big Ten. It did feed the fire a little bit, going out there and proving people wrong.'' While the Illini defense produced a gritty performance against the nation's 14th-ranked passing offense, Illinois ground to a halt. The Illini rolled up 139 yards of offense in the first quarter, then managed only 76 yards in the next two quarters. The Illini didn't have a first down in the third quarter. But Illinois took advantage of the turnover created by Mercilus, who swiped Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler from behind to cause the fumble. Illini linebacker Ian Thomas recovered it, setting up the scoring chance. The Illini covered the 41 yards in four plays, helped by a pass interference call. Arizona State (2-1) appeared in the AP rankings for the first time since 2008 after the breakthrough overtime win over Missouri last weekend. The Illini defeated a Pac-12 team for the first time since 2001, ending a five-game losing streak to the league. "They're a good football team, and they played very well defensively,'' said Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson. "They did some different things. We didn't protect very well.'' Illinois report card Offense -- B- The Illini escaped with a big victory despite an offense that couldn't get rolling after two early drives. The Illini managed just 76 yards in the second and third quarters, then tallied the go- ahead score thanks to a turnover and a short field. Defense -- A Let's just say it's a waste of time worrying about defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and his group in Camp Rantoul. For the second straight season, the Illini came together when the games mattered. Linebacker Jonathan Brown is a keeper. Special teams -- D A muffed punt by sophomore Ryan Lankford put the Illini in a hole.The return game is ineffective, and freshman punter Justin DuVernois is still getting adjusted. Overall -- B Even if the Illini stumbled on offense, Illinois learned it can win a big game with some defense. The Sun Devils were picked to finish second in the Pac 12 South Division, so this was a victory that should earn the Illini some respect and some votes in the top 25.