When No. 24 Illinois hosts Western Michigan while seeking its first 4-0 start in 60 years, the Illini defense will keep trying to surprise the critics for the second straight season.

CHAMPAIGN -- It was easy to bash the Illinois defense in the preseason.


The Illini lost three players to the NFL draft last season, with defensive tackle Corey Liuget going in the first round, linebacker Martez Wilson in the third and linebacker Nate Bussey the seventh.


With the Illini sitting low in the preseason position rankings, it looked like the Illini would need to win in shootouts this fall. That kind of talk left even defensive end Whitney Mercilus wondering about what was ahead.


"When we got rained down on with a lot of negative words, I started questioning myself,'' he said.


When No. 24 Illinois hosts Western Michigan while seeking its first 4-0 start in 60 years, the Illini defense will keep trying to surprise the critics for the second straight season.


"We're a dog trying to find a bone,'' said defensive coordinator Vic Koenning in his Oklahoma drawl, trying to downplay the strong start.


In the 17-14 win over then-No. 22 Arizona State, the Illini pressured the quarterback (six sacks), confused the Sun Devils (12 tackles for a loss), created turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble recovery) and shut down a high-power Arizona State passing offense that averaged 42.5 points entering the game. Even if Koenning isn't the secret weapon by producing another strong unit, his defense already learned to trust him.


"Coach Vic puts us in the right situations to be successful. Our confidence is growing,'' said bandit linebacker Michael Buchanan. "We thought we could step right in and fill their shoes.''


In the first season last fall under Koenning, the Illini jumped from 91st to 38th nationally in total defense, 96th to 48th in scoring defense and 76th to 32nd in rushing defense.


Now, for the encore. After three games, the Illini rank in the top 20 nationally in seven categories, including two in the top 10 -- seventh in rushing defense (63.6 yards per game) and sixth in red zone defense. Illinois hasn't allowed a point after four turnovers this season. The Illini lead the Big Ten with 11 sacks. Mercilus, the individual league sack leader with three, recalled the fallout from one practice session at Camp Rantoul, when the defense wasn't effective.


"It wasn't too pretty so we had to come back and prove ourselves constantly," Mercilus said. "Coach Zook was on us about turning everything around, and Vic didn't want to hear comments about the defense being bad and not tackling or playing fast. For us, it was a personal thing."


Koenning doesn't want another meltdown like the Michigan game last season, when the Illini gave up 67 points in a triple-overtime loss and lost its stinger, he said. So there have been few compliments from him this week.


"You go back to last year,'' he said. "We were sitting pretty good. We had a debacle at Michigan. We have to keep that in the back of our mind and not ever go back to that.


"If you repeat history, you'll have the same issues. You'll always be what you've always been. That Michigan game last year, it was a nightmare.''


Things must be coming together. Zook, who's working on his fifth defensive coordinator in seventh years here, praised Koenning.


"Coach Vic put together a great plan,'' Zook said. "They had a lot of fun. They played with great emotion.''


Koenning said Zook helped ease the stress during the first quarter against Arizona State, when the Sun Devils moved the ball with ease.


"Coach Zook, he was a calming affect with the players and me, too,'' Koenning said. "In the first quarter, we were busting everything. Guys weren’t doing what we practiced. He said, 'It's all right. It’s all right.' He did a fantastic job of keeping everybody calm.''


The challenge in stopping Western Michigan is quarterback Alex Carder (681 yards passing, five touchdowns, three interceptions) and receiver Jordan White (29 receptions, 363 yards, two touchdowns). White is also a playmaker on special teams (23-yard average on punt returns)


The Illini will eventually get a boost from the return of Ashante Williams, projected as the starter at strongside linebacker before his DUI arrest and suspension in July. He will likely play against Western Michigan on special teams, Zook said, then work his way back into the rotation on defense.


John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnSupinie.


*****


Illinois (3-0) vs. Western Michigan (2-1)


When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday


Where: Memorial Stadium (60,670), Champaign


Series record: Illinois leads 2-1


Last meeting: Western Michigan 23-17 (2008)


Rankings: Illinois No. 24


Radio: 


TV: Big Ten Network


The line: 


Coaches: Ron Zook, 31-45 in seventh year at Illinois, 54-59 in 10th year overall; Bill Cubit, 42-31 in seventh year at Western Michigan, 76-52-1 in 11th year overall.


NCAA rankings: Illinois offense -- rushing 22nd, 223.6; passing 90th, 187.0; scoring 40th, 35.3; total 60th, 410.6. Illinois defense -- rushing 7th, 63.6; passing 59th, 205.6; scoring 11th, 10.6; total 17th, 269.3. Western Michigan offense -- rushing 63rd, 150.0; passing 34th, 270.5; scoring 18th, 41.0; total 53rd, 420.5. Western Michigan defense -- rushing 64th, 136.0; passing 8th, 137.5; scoring 9th, 10.5; total 19th, 273.5.


(Note: WMU stats don't include shortened game vs. Michigan.)


Notable: Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase practiced after suffering a bruised shoulder against Arizona State. He would be "A-OK'' against Western Michigan, he said. … In 13 trips to the red zone, the Illini have 10 touchdowns and three field goals. … The Illini won their first seven games in 1951. … Illinois hosts Western Michigan next season before the two teams are contracted to play at Western Michigan in 2016. … Western Michigan is 0-20 all-time against top 25 teams. … The Broncos were picked to finish third in the MAC West Division. … A crowd of 42,000 is expected.


Quotable: "We did have long days in camp. It makes us better. It showed the year before. It showed this year.'' -- Illini bandit linebacker Michael Buchanan.


Prediction: Illinois 34, Western Michigan 17