Sydney Brown, Illinois

Illinois safety Sydney Brown (No. 30) knocked Purdue tight end Payne Durham's helmet off with a big hit in the second quarter Saturday.

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CHAMPAIGN — Illinois was already without two defensive starters, linebacker Jake Hansen and cornerback Devon Witherspoon, due to injuries and was on the brink of losing a third early in the first quarter Saturday at Purdue.

Fourth-year safety Sydney Brown had just been called for targeting after making a tackle on Boilermakers wide receiver Milton Wright. As Wright dove to the ground and Brown lunged at him, their helmets collided and the play went to review.

The targeting call was eventually overturned, allowing Brown to stay in the game, but in the second quarter he was once again at the center of a hard-hitting play.

This time the safety delivered a violent blow to Purdue tight end Payne Durham's midsection that jolted Durham so much that it actually knocked his helmet off. Durham stayed down on the ground for several minutes, writhing in pain, before eventually walking off the field under his own power.

Throughout that stoppage, Boilermakers fans begged for a targeting call but didn't get it. An official caught on a hot mic even said it was a vicious yet clean hit from Brown.

"You just gotta go for it," Brown said of his big hits. "I think it's one thing where as a safety, it's by chance (if the officials disqualify you for targeting). It's what they think; it's what they see. It's not based off of what you think, right? So you just gotta hope that your head's out of it and that's really it."

Brown's bone-crushing blow set the tone for a stout defensive performance by the Illini, who eventually fell 13-9 at Purdue. Despite the loss, Illinois' defense clearly took another step forward and looks completely different from the unit that gave up 37 and 42 points to UTSA and Virginia, respectively, earlier this season.

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Brown totaled a team-high seven tackles and one pass breakup against the Boilermakers, but he wasn't the only one flying around the field. Fellow fourth-year safety Kerby Joseph had six tackles and one interception, cornerback Tony Adams Jr. added a pick, linebackers Tarique Barnes and Owen Carney Jr. each had a sack, and linebacker Isaiah Gary and defensive lineman Johnny Newton combined for a sack.

On those plays and many others, pads were popping as the Illini imposed their physicality. Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters expects that trend to continue.

"I think what went into it is that our guys were in better positions to be able to deliver contact like that," Walters said. "We talked a couple weeks ago about missed tackles and sort of why they were coming up, and you look at the last two games the mental errors have gone way down, so guys are in better positions to go make plays when those plays come to them. That's kind of what you saw Saturday, just guys in better positions to deliver blows like that."

Walters added that he believes there is "a misnomer out there" about targeting calls limiting players' ability to be physical. He still thinks there are plenty of opportunities to send a message within the confines of the game, which is exactly what Brown and the rest of the team did Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium.

Brown said it ultimately comes down to how he and his peers prepare. After executing the proper tackling technique countless times in practice, targeting is the last thing on their minds when they dish out bone-rattling blows on game day.

"We're just bringing energy to the field, that's what it is," Brown said. "I think as a defense we've got this aura around us right now. When we make plays it feeds into the offense. You can see it on the drives after so we just gotta do more."


Follow James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid

This article originally ran on pantagraph.com.

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