Preview: Illinois vs. Michigan

FIRE THIS JERK.  Just kidding.  In all seriousness, I've stayed away from this topic all week despite my early inclination to write a case for firing Rodriguez and starting from scratch.  I've since backed off that initial mode of thought after being talked off the ledge by a surprisingly calm SCM.  We are now tied at 1 apiece for a drunken phone call that entails yelling "fire them all" into the phone.  SCM's came after the 2009 Purdue loss, mine after Penn State.  As a bonus, mine contained no less than 124 mentions of the name Harbaugh, so there's that.  Wheeeee.

My initial points, which I believe still stand as valid no matter how you decide to react to them, are these:  Rodriguez is 0-2 on defensive coordinators, and Rodriguez has only beaten Minnesota, Indiana (twice!), and Wisconsin in the Big Ten.  Wisconsin, while exhilarating, shouldn't have even happened.  However, since it did happen, we can state firmly that Rodriguez's 2008 team - the team that was supposed to be the pinnacle (nadir?) of his "I don't have the right people to run my system" explanation, has more Big Ten wins than the entire 2009 edition, and the year-to-date 2010 edition. Combine this with the fact that, after the Shafer and GERG hirings, I have little confidence that he will right the ship on the next guy, especially if he continues to cram the 3-3-5 into non-3-3-5 coordinators.  If he goes and gets Casteel, which I consider unlikely due to the confluence of events that would have to take place for him to be available, then I guess he can continue to run it, but seriously let's not continue to run it. 

 

So yeah, there's been a lot said about how Rodriguez should be kept on as head coach, and despite the above, I feel that he should be retained as well, mostly because the arguments "for" are more persuasive than the arguments against (see linked posts for evidence of that).  However, if you're one of the folks who now just say "eff this" and mumble "Harbaugh" in your sleep, well, I can't blame you.  You finally might be right.  The most annoying part of it all is that all those message board lunatics who said things like "Rodriguez won't last in the Big Ten" despite all available evidence just might have fallen ass-backwards into being right for all the wrong reasons.  They will claim victory, or rather vindication, no doubt.  They remain idiots.

(Actual preview after the jump, I promise)

 

Illinois-football_medium

This week, for those paying attention to actual football still, Illinois comes into the Big House.  Illinois was thought to be a Big Ten whipping boy this year, but have turned out to be a lot tougher than anyone imagined.  They pretty thoroughly beat Penn State, featuring the quarterbacking stylings of Robert Bolden no less, at Penn State over homecoming, and played Michigan State tough before coming up short.  Their 5-3 record matches the Wolverines, but they sit at 3-2 in the Big Ten, while Michigan is languishing with only 1 win in conference.  Vegas likes Michigan by 3, somehow.

Illini Offense

Illinois comes into Ann Arbor with the 24th best rushing attack, and the 111th best passing attack.  This will no doubt change this week as quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase goes against a Michigan secondary missing JT Floyd, who is out for the remainder of the season with some sort of rare ligament damage.  Courtney Avery is expected to start.  While normally the thought of losing one of your starting cornerbacks would be reason to panic, the passing defense can't really imitate a sieve any better, and frankly it would be an insult to sieve's everywhere.  Despite this fact, Schelhasse has simply not been competent throwing the ball this year.  Could we catch him on an off day?  Maybe.  More than likely, however, Schelhaase has his best day ever against this Michigan secondary. 

Nathan-scheelhaase_medium

 

That being said, what Illinois will likely do is try to establish the run first and foremost, as it is certainly what they hang their hats on.  This is where I would normally insert some kind of language about how the Michigan secondary is the problem and that if linebackers can get up in run support, we might be able to force some punts.  However, after seeing what Royster did to us last week in an eerily similar "we know they're not going to pass" kind of situation, this has been put on hold.  Rumors have it that Craig Roh is moving back to Defensive End (thank GOD):

Craig actually vocalized his concern about his position to the coaches after the Penn State game, and my source says that he has been playing much more on the defensive line during practice this week

This points towards a likely shift to a 4-man front, which I suppose is "yay" worthy except that this defense is so confused they don't know what to do where.  Typically, as a football team that is struggling, you have something that you can point to and say "we do this, and we do it well."  Whether defensively that be defend the run, force turnovers, stand up to 3rd and short, etc, there is at least something that a team can hang their hat on a build off of.  This defense has been scooted around so much that there isn't a single thing positive that I can point to and say "we do this well."  We play the 3-4, 4-3, 4-3 under, 3-3-5, and the 4-2-5 all not particularly well.  This is a function of youth, yes, but it's also a function of coaching and damnit I told myself I wasn't going to do this in the preview section.  Arg.

Running the ball for Illinois will be Mikel Leshoure, a 230 lbs Junior.  Last year he led the Big Ten in YPC at 6.9.  Want to see?


With Michigan presumably changing back to a 4 man front, hopefully this slows the running attack a bit.  If Mike Martin is unable to go, or unable to be effective, the run defense escalates to defcon 5. 

The summary of all this, and I apologize for the general brevity, is that the Michigan defense will be unlikely to hold Illinois under 35 points.  That's the just the bare-bones fact of the matter.  Mike Martin is hurt, the secondary is comprised of freshman 3-stars, Kovacs, Grit, and Dreams, and the linebacker situation was tenuous to start the season and might have improved the the addition of Demens but empirical evidence states otherwise.  McGloin - he of Walk On fame - shredded us for over 9 yards per throw last Saturday; even the possibility of forcing Schelhasse into 3rd and long situations comes with a caveat; he'll probably be able to beat that too.

Illinois Defense

3769710_medium

 

With Denard's shaky performance throwing the ball (and his receivers not helping either) against Penn State, establishing the run is imperative against Illinois.  Unfortunately, the Illini rank 26th nationally in defending the run thanks in large part to Defensive Tackle Corey Liuget.  Their defensive line is big and nasty, but IMO nothing that our offensive line hasn't handled before.  For comparison, Iowa is now up to 5th in rushing defense nationally, and we rushed for 187 yards at 4.5 yards per carry, and that was without Denard for the majority of the game.  The rushing offense is for real, and I expect them to continue to move the ball against this defense, despite the fact that they are significantly above average in rush defense. 

And I say this after re-watching this:


The passing offense is going to be largely dependent on whether Denard continues his regression back to being somewhat erratic with his throws, or if he goes back to being an immortal descended from Mount Olympus on a quest to bring glory to humanity.  This is not commentary on the Illinois pass defense; they're ranked 19th nationally and will likely put some pressure on Denard to make throws, but when this offense is clicking the receivers are open - just hit them baby.  

Stopping Denard obviously becomes the refrain for all involved with coach Zook leading the way:

"At least it is assignment football and we are going to get a little bit of that type of offense with the option and so forth. But we have to do what we do and we have to do it extremely well. I think we have to swarm the football, we have to tackle, we can’t jump out of gaps. He is like water; he is going to seek the path of least resistance."

Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning:

"We have to contain the big plays," Koenning said. "He has an extremely, extremely strong arm. He has great accuracy. I can't say enough about his ability."

At what point do we stop seeing articles called "Team-X Must Stop Denard Robinson" before it's just kind of stupid?  I mean, that article title - which has been seen for every game since Uconn - is like saying "Team-X Defense Must Play Defense."  There is not other option against Michigan; stop Denard, and you've stopped the offense and thus successfully played defense.

Linebacker Martez Wilson is ready:

"Our confidence is up," linebacker Martez Wilson said. "This is the best time to go into the Big House and try to come out with a win."

Wilson is certainly one to watch, he's leading the team with 6.5 TFL's, and has been a large reason why Illinois is 15th in total defense nationally, up from 92nd last year.  Michigan will score points.  Whether they score enough to...well...outscore Illinois is another matter entirely.

Special Teams

Hey, we kicked a field goal last week!  That's fun.  A moral victory.  Ok maybe not.  Illinois has a significant advantage in special teams.

Final Prediction

Death_medium

 

Vegas has us favored by 3 points which is just wild to me.  There is virtually no way that I can foresee Michigan stopping Illinois with regularity; we haven't done it all season and that was when we were healthy.  I'm at 35-31, Illinois.  Hope I'm wrong. 

Key Matchups

Mike Martin vs. Ankles:  If he is unable to go, or ineffective when he's in, we're in trouble.

Denard Robinson vs. Establish Passing Game:  Now, he certainly wasn't helped by his receivers, but I think he's a better passer than he showed against Penn State.  Hopefully he gets back on track here at home.

Michigan vs. Defending the Pass:  Is this a joke?

Gametime Drink of Choice

"The Socrates."  Figure it out.

Alternate Programming

The Breeder's Cup on ESPN.  Will Zenyatta get her 20th win in a row?  Has there ever been a more transparent attempt at making people care about an event that nobody cares about by a media corporation?  

Inanimate Object Threat Level

Way down this week as my rage gives over to ennui that simply causes me to hang my head and ponder the number 42 and its potential meaning in my life.

Recommended for Survival

Stay off the Internet.

Elsewhere

Fighting Illini vs Wolverines coverage

Fighting Illini vs Wolverines preview

Hail to the Orange

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