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College football: Tackling problem for Illini

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013 11:51 p.m. CDT
Illinois' Earnest Thomas III tackles Washington's Kevin Smith during Saturday's game at Soldier Field in Chicago. Missed tackles cost Illinois in the loss.

CHAMPAIGN – For its first game at Chicago's Soldier Field in 19 years, Illinois had Dick Butkus on the sideline.

The greatest defensive player in Illini history watched his old school allow 615 yards to Washington in a 34-24 loss.

Illinois, players and coaches alike, said the problem was tackling that was anything but Butkus-like.

"I saw tackling was the major concern in the third and fourth quarter as well as what you saw," Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. "We have to tackle better when we're playing a team that is a Top 25 football team."

No. 17 Washington pulled away from Illinois in the third quarter after Illinois had kept the deficit to a manageable 10-3 at halftime.

The Illini (2-1) entered the game knowing the Huskies would run a fast-paced offense – and have more talent – than anyone they'd seen this season.

And the Huskies didn't disappoint, running 85 plays while quarterback Keith Price threw for 342 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Bishop Sankey ran for 208 yards and a touchdown.

Big plays were a killer. Six Washington receivers caught at least one pass of 15 yards or more. Sankey had a run of 25 yards and one of Jesse Callier's six carries went for a 39-yard touchdown.

Missed and blown tackles in open space, Illini defensive coordinator Tim Banks said, were behind most of those big plays.

"When you're facing a team of that caliber, they're going to try to get you in space and make plays," Banks said. "That's what these fast-paced offenses [are] all about – creating space, creating one-on-ones and trying to see if you can tackle in space."

Callier's touchdown started as a straight-ahead run, but turned into an open-field romp because three Illini defenders missed him – one as he crossed the line of scrimmage, one about 10 yards downfield and, finally, safety Earnest Thomas, just before Collier spun across the goal line.

Thomas, a junior who is the most experienced member of a very green Illinois secondary, said the speed of the Huskies' attack had nothing to do with it.

"I don't think the pace of the game had anything to do with the tackling struggles, but I think our fundamentals just got out of whack at times in the game," Thomas said. "We need to consistently focus on our fundamentals."

Given all those yards, the Huskies held themselves back as much as anything, with a dozen penalties, two fumbles and a pair of sacks on Price.

Illinois is off this week before coming back to Champaign to take on Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 28, the final Illini game before the Big Ten season starts Oct. 5 at Nebraska.

Thomas said tackling will be high on Illinois' defensive agenda between now and then.

"The bottom line is that we just have to wrap up," he said. "It's definitely something that can be corrected and it will be a focus of our practices in the upcoming weeks."

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