CHICAGO - As soon as Mark Fields gets a little more experience as a middle linebacker, the feeling is he might become a pretty good football player.
In the meantime, he appears more than capable of holding his own as a member of Washington State University's blitzing, meet-you-at-the-quarterback defensive unit that last night:
-- Prevented Illinois from scoring a touchdown.
-- Held the Illini to a net 5 yards rushing.
-- Recorded nine tackles for lost yardage, two of which were sacks.
-- Recovered four fumbles.
-- Either set up or scored all of the Cougar points in a 10-9 nonconference victory that spoiled the Illini's return to the Windy City after a 55-year absence.
"It feels good," said Fields, a 238-pound senior who scored the game's only touchdown on a school-record 71-yard fumble return.
"A lot of guys were excited about being in Chicago and playing at Soldier Field. But we knew we had a job to do."
The job the defense had to do if the Cougars were to win was to make up for a balky offense that struggled behind first-year quarterback Chad Davis. WSU was held to a 157 yards total offense, a four-year Cougar low, as Davis completed 11 of 23 pass attempts for 95 yards.
"Coming into this season, we knew we had to carry this team because we're the veterans around here," outside linebacker Ron Childs said of the defense. The Kennewick senior did his part by returning a fumble 20 yards to set up a 20-yard field goal by Tony Truant that gave the the Cougars a 3-0 lead in the first quarter.
"We have total faith in the offense, but it takes time to get it going," Childs said. "They'll be all right. But we do feel we have to pick up the slack and that's what we did tonight."
Illinois Coach Lou Tepper said he was impressed.
"I have a much better appreciation for them after seeing them blitz with the kind of speed that they have," Tepper said.
So good was the Cougar blitz that Bill Doba, WSU's defensive coordinator, went with it instead of a prevent scheme when Illinois was threatening on the game's final series.
"You've got to do what you do well," Doba said. "And I always think the worst thing some poeple do is go into a prevent defense. . . .
"We were more successful putting pressure on him (quarterback Johnny Johnson) and making him scramble and throw the thing out of bounds than we were playing coverage throughout the entire game."
The game ended with the Illini's Chris Richardson missing a 57-yard field-goal attempt after Illinois had driven in the final 1:14 from its 20.
"Character and great courage" were the reasons WSU Coach Mike Price said his team won.
"The defense did just a tremendous job, particuarly in the third quarter when we didn't have very good field position and we couldn't get a first down."
After just two first downs in the second half, Price said offensive answers need to be found.
"I'm not satisfied with this performance, but I'm sure satisfied with the victory," Price said. "It was against a real quality team."
Childs' fumble return in the first quarter began when tackle Don Sasa disrupted a handoff to running back Damien Platt at the Illinois 35. The ball bounced free, and Childs scooped it up and raced down the right sideline before he was tackled at the Illini 15.
"I knew there was a lot of traffic behind me, so I had to slow down and pick it up and just go," Childs said.
A 13-yard pass from Davis to Larry Dumas gave WSU a first down on the 2. But three downs later it was fourth-and-goal at the 3, and Truant came on to kick his first field goal in nearly two years.
After Illinois tied the score on a 38-yard field goal by Richardson with 6:05 left in the first half, Fields came up with his school-record play as time was expiring in the first half. It began with Johnson fumbling at the Cougar 30.
Fields scooped up the ball at the 29 and ran down the left sideline. He dived the final 3 yards into the end zone.
"It felt like my old running-back days," said Fields of his high-school career. "I even switched hands with the ball like you're supposed to."
Playing middle linebacker for the first time and playing in a game for the first time in two years, Fields said he likes his new position.
"It felt pretty good," said Fields, who was academically ineligible in 1993. "I wish I had three or four years at it, but I've only got one left."
Fields' touchdown and Truant's extra-point kick put the Cougars ahead 10-3 with just 15 seconds left in the half. But that was time enough for Richardson to kick a 38-yard field goal that cut the lead to 10-6. From his own 28 yard line, Johnson completed a 52-yard pass to Marquis Mobley on first down to set up the field goal.
The only scoring in the second half was a 43-yard field goal by Richardson.