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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – For a moment on Saturday, it looked as though Illinois' turnover drought might end. Youngstown State quarterback Dante Nania delivered a ball right to Illini linebacker Mason Monheim's hands.
Monheim, one of the team's best defenders, dropped it.
Illinois didn't force a turnover in the 28-17 win over Youngstown State, and has gone two-plus games without one, dating to the Purdue game last November. The lack of turnovers isn't Illinois' only defensive problem since the start of the 2013 season, but it's a big one.
"That's, again, the Achilles heel that we have got to change," coach Tim Beckman said. "We have got to take the football away."
The Illini (1-0) forced just 11 turnovers last season (10th in what was then a 12-team conference), and just three interceptions. No Big Ten team picked off fewer passes, and the next-worst, Indiana, had seven, more than twice as many.
A single turnover, of course, can swing a tight game. Monheim's would-be interception is a clear example of what might have been.
After flirting for three quarters with what would have been a nightmare loss to the Championship Subdivision Penguins, Illinois had just taken the lead 14-9.
Early in the fourth quarter, Youngstown had the ball inside its own 30-yard line. Nania looked to his left and sent the ball right at Monheim, standing near the 30.
If Monheim had held onto the ball, there wasn't much outside of Nania between him and the goal line. Score, and a 5-point lead becomes at least 11, forcing the run-first Penguins to score twice late.
When the ball tumbled to the turf, Monheim stretched his hands out toward it as if he wanted to will the moment back.
Instead of having the ball and possibly a bigger lead, the Illini were soon trailing again. Youngstown scored seven plays later to go back up, 17-14, before Illinois put together two late touchdown drives for the win.
Monheim's almost-pick was the most obvious problem, but it wasn't the only one.
"I thought I saw a couple of times where the ball carrier had the ball out and we could have punched it," said defensive coordinator Tim Banks, who admitted he has grown tired of answering questions about the lack of turnovers.
A fumble or two would have gotten a tired defense off the field. Youngstown State had the ball for two-thirds of the game, 40:01, using its run game to grind up the time. On a humid, 80-degree afternoon, five drives of three minutes or longer wore on Illinois' defense, defensive tackle Austin Teitsma said.
"It is hard mentally, especially toward the sixth, seventh play," he said.
The ability to take the ball away could be even more important Saturday. Western Kentucky (1-0) beat Bowling Green last week 59-31 with an offense that piled up 708 yards. The Hilltoppers ran 96 plays (Illinois had 60 against Youngstown State) and quarterback Brandon Doughty threw for 569 yards and six touchdowns.
Banks and Beckman both say their defense is in for a test. But Banks believes the solution to the turnover problem is fairly simple: Persistence.
"I think if those guys will continue to play hard, it's going to come," he said.
Follow David Mercer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davidmercerap