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Tougher schedule exposes Illini defensive problems

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Associated Press

   CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) -- Heading into its second bye week of the season, Illinois finds itself staring at three serious defensive problems and a Big Ten schedule that doesn't get easier.
   One of them -- poor tackling -- Illinois (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten) emphasized during its first bye after the loss to Washington last month. The team's inability to create turnovers or get pressure on opposing quarterbacks are related, and will get serious looks over the off week, too, coach Tim Beckman said Tuesday.
   Tackling, Beckman said, was a painful problem in Saturday's 39-19 loss at Nebraska.
   "Defensively, again it comes down to tackling, especially in the open field," he said. "That's the glaring difficulty that we're having right now. ... We're going to work on doing a better job of open-field tackling."
   That's essentially what Beckman and his players said after the loss to Washington. The Huskies rolled up more than 600 yards in the win.
   Nebraska had 521 yards of offense. Running back Ameer Abdullah had a career day -- 225 yards on 20 carries, including a 43-yarder, and two touchdowns.
   The other problems, though, are becoming more glaring Illinois moves through the tougher Big Ten season.
   The Illini have forced just five turnovers this season, and only one interception. Their turnover margin, minus-2, is tied for 88th in the country. And that single interception is three less than Purdue, Indiana and Wisconsin, the only other Big Ten teams with any fewer than five picks.
   The team's sack leader, Jonathan Brown, has just 1.5. On Saturday, with starter Taylor Martinez sidelined with an injury, Illinois hurried Nebraska's backup quarterbacks just one time and never sacked them.
   Illinois' coaches, Beckman said, will spend the time between now and the Oct. 19 game against Wisconsin (3-2, 1-1) trying to figure out how to get pass rushers closer to opposing quarterbacks.
   "I think again it comes back to the philosophy of getting your players who are capable of pressuring the quarterback on the field as much as possible in those situations, so we can put more speed on the football field," he said.
   After the Wisconsin game, the Illini host Michigan State (4-1, 1-0). They're not likely to be favored in either of them to end their Big Ten winless streak, now at 15 games and stretching back to the 2011 season.
   Beckman said Illinois' tough opening stretch in the Big Ten -- at Nebraska and at home against Wisconsin and Michigan State -- isn't lost on his players.
   "I think our players realize that our first three Big Ten opponents have been in the (conference) championship game the past three years."
   NOTES: Beckman said he's making the best of the unusual second bye week, something he says he's never had at any of his stops as a college coach. But he said he'd rather his young team keep playing. "I do think our football program is getting better and we are competing and doing things that are moving this program forward. As a coach, you kind of hate to get away from it." ... Beckman said the week off could give injured sophomore defensive lineman Teko Powell time to heal. Powell has played in just two games this fall and could provide much-needed depth for a thin Illini defense.
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