Michigan-Illinois: Now You See Me

Gregory Shamus - Getty Images

It was a vintage Bo era "smashing victory" for the Wolverines on Saturday as they move to 4-2 before the onset of rivalry week numero dos. If it wasn't for the whole Hoke not wearing a headset thing, it would almost seem as if the ghost of Bo is running the show these days.

"Odysseus kept the ball," says Carl Grapentine (not really but just pretend).

The rain fell here in Chicago on Saturday morning and in Ann Arbor too, the skies overcast and gloomy. Maybe this was nature's way of telling me that I should have come home on this day of Homecoming.

Although I was not there, I felt that I was. I listened to "Varsity," singing along with my own version of the lyrics that are probably secretly yours too ("Varsity, Varsity, Varsity, Varsity, Varsity, Varsity oh Varsityyyyy"). I recalled all the hokey Homecoming traditions that I laughed at as an undergrad, back when I thought it would all never end. "I Want To Go Back To Michigan", the locomotive cheer, the alumni band members--with patches from Rose Bowls gone by adorning their jackets--and the alumni cheerleaders, who have all seemingly taken their fill of the Fountain of Youth.

Michigan was 2-2 in Homecoming games during my time as an undergrad. I saw: the 2007 thumping against Purdue; the 2008 loss to Illinois; the 2009 thriller against Indiana, in which Tate Forcier brought Michigan back while also hurting his shoulder on a Superman dive into the end zone, perhaps representing the inflection point that marked the downward slide in his career; and the 2010 loss against Iowa, Michigan's second in a row after a 5-0 start. Homecoming was a mixed bag of elation and disappointment during my time as an undergrad, one of the most turbulent periods in Michigan football history.

Yet, despite this, Homecoming is a notion that extends beyond the confines of the white lines, where victory and defeat are determined through split-second decisions, mental and physical superiority, and sometimes a little luck. This idea of Homecoming is one that is simultaneously far less ironclad yet far more meaningful. It is abstract but not dispassionate.

Homecoming is a stasis time-space that renews itself each year during the span of one fall Saturday, like a miniature season within a season. It doesn't recognize state lines or time zones.

This notion, Homecoming, is renewed each year, and yet is always there. It never goes away, but sometimes we need reminding.

The Offense

When Odysseus* returned home, he was met with a cohort of unruly suitors. Like those suitors, Illinois simply did not have the strength to string the bow and fire.

The gameplan was, like last week, old school with a modern twist. Bo had his fair share of mobile quarterbacks, but sometimes, in idle moments, I wonder what a Michigan offense under Bo would have looked like with Denard Robinson, the hero of this epic tale, running the show. But, you know what they say about time travel and butterfly effects and whatnot.

Michigan's run-pass split on offense was almost identical to last week's, running it 77% of the time on Saturday afternoon underneath the steady rainfall. Michigan will likely need to open it up just a bit against Michigan State and Ohio State, but, quite honestly, they might not even have to pass that much more against those defenses. Al Borges has clearly settled into a sort of groove these past couple of weeks after the disaster that was the Notre Dame game (which, for the record, I think Borges did "okay" at worst in calling). He's found that "comfort zone" that has clearly escaped him for much of his time at Michigan, and with the conference title there for the taking, that is a comforting notion.

Against an obviously overmatched Illini team, the Wolverines carried the ball 51 times for a whopping 353 yards on 6.9 YPC. After Michigan stopped the Illini on 3rd & 1, Borges called four running plays in a row before the Jeremy Gallon screen pass for a touchdown. The emphasis on the run was clear from the very beginning.

Michigan did all this with Denard Robinson "only" carrying the ball 11 times, good for 134 yards, 49 of which came on this magical disappearing act:

2012 Michigan vs. Illinois Highlights HD (via mgovideo)

Now you see me, now you don't

No, Danny Kanell, you cannot do that.

For the second week in a row, Denard ran the inverted veer with a masterful confidence, knowing exactly when to pull and exactly when to give. Fitzgerald Toussaint got going a little bit (18 carries, 66 yards, 1 TD), although his stat line was not quite as tremendous as many were hoping it might be this week. Part of the blame for his struggles undoubtedly have to be attributed to the offensive line, but on Saturday there were a few instances when he seemingly two-stepped his way out of a solid gain. Say what you will about Michigan State's record to date, but Fitz will need to be a little more decisive next week if Michigan is going to avoid having to lean on Denard like an overserved person against a wall at 2 a.m.

Michigan passed infrequently, but when it did it was effective. Denard was 7/11 on the day for 159 yards, two touchdowns, and zero (zero!) interceptions. IIRC, two of his incompletions were flat out drops, and another was simply a not very risky pass to Roundtree in the end zone that was raked away by a hotly contesting defensive back.

Denard's pass to Devin Gardner on a wheel route down the left sideline was thrown into double coverage and almost intercepted by Ashanti Williams. This was probably his only "bad" play of the day.

Other than that, Denard's performance was another ray of sunshine beamed into your football-watching eyeballs on a day during which very little sunshine was to be found.

The only moment of concern arose when Denard went out with a finger injury in the first quarter after a run up the gut to the Illinois 1. With Russell Bellomy in the game, Michigan got stuffed twice before electing to kick an 18-yard field goal. Fortunately, after only one more Bellomy drive, Denard came back in and helped lead one more TD drive before the half, a 9-play drive featuring eight running plays, including a 33-yard Denard run and another 6-yard run for a score from the Dreaded One.

`With all of that said, this Illinois defense was not a good one by any means. It's truly remarkable how far it has fallen off post-Koenning, going from extremely formidable to "two pretty good players and not much else." This is yet another data point to file somewhere in the "wait, Tim Beckman has a defensive reputation?" wing of the Museum of College Football Things That Don't Make Sense (As you can imagine, there are many wings in this museum...it's the winged helmet of fictional museums.)

*Or, as I like to call him, "the Liam Neeson of the 8th century BC."

The Defense

I'm still getting used to this whole "having a good defense" thing again, but I will say this: WOOO NOT GIVING UP ALL OF THE POINTS EVERY WEEK IS SO FUN. For the third week in a row, Michigan was as unwilling to afford its opponent points as Daniel Day-Lewis's character in There Will Be Blood was willing to allow anyone a cut of his oil profits in the drab wasteland of Little Boston.

Michigan drank Illinois' milkshake all day long, and there was literally nothing the Illini could do about it. The Illini had some success on the ground early on, but a big 3rd & 1 stop near midfield halted what was a promising first drive. Later on, Jibreel Black knocked Nathan Scheelhaase out of the game on a tackle near the end of a 23-yard run. Reilly O'Toole entered the game for Illinois, and that drive ended with a 50-yard field goal missed wide right, vindicating all advanced stats junkies in one fell swoop (gotta go for it because science, Tim!).

Without Scheelhaase's legs, the Illini had very little hope of moving the ball the rest of the way. Scheelhaase and O'Toole combined for an abysmal, nightmarish, terrible, Michigan 2008-esque 7-16 on the day, good for 29 yards and an interception. O'Toole took three sacks, threw a pick right into the expectant Kenny Demens's chest, and fumbled after assuming a cameo role in this week's episode of "Jake Ryan Drinks Your Milkshake, He Drinks It Up!"**

It was bad. The last time Michigan beat down the Illini like this at home, it was 2003 and John Navarre was busy getting passes deflected at the line while simultaneously shrugging off the HATERZ en route to a Big Ten title.

Without Scheelhaase for most of the contest, Illinois couldn't do much on the ground either. Removing the aforementioned O'Toole sacks, Illinois ran the ball 34 times for 118 yards (3.5 YPC). If you're keeping track, that means Michigan held Illinois to under 150 yards of total offense.

Once again, level of competition caveats apply, but the encouraging thing to take from this game is that several players are getting noticeably better. Desmond Morgan and Kenny Demens have clearly re-asserted their hold on their positions, Craig Roh has transitioned quite nicely to the SDE spot, the interior is getting better (namely Quinton Washington, who might actually be...good?), the safeties are still dueling Tatooine suns of blazing awesomeness, and Raymon Taylor can very clearly play.

Other than Ohio State and maybe Nebraska, I don't see any team left on the schedule scoring more than 20 on this defense. The Alabama game happened and it was bad and all, but among the ranks of mortal college football squadrons, Michigan's defense can clearly be considered a pretty good one at this juncture.

**Really, great show. It's like Breaking Bad except the complete opposite of bald.

Special Teams

Brendan Gibbons was perfect on the day, converting on a gimme 18-yarder after Denard went out briefly with a boo boo.

Will Hagerup booted one for 43 yards and Matt Wile knocked all three of his punts inside the 20. Hagerup is the guy blasting it 350+ yards from the tee, whereas Wile is the designated short game specialist. Maybe the Ryder Cup team could have used them (too soon?).

Otherwise, kickoff returns didn't matter because, you know, obviously. On punts, Dennis Norfleet almost busted his first return for a score, hitting his sixth gear and flying by everybody before somehow deciding to run right into the punter just past midfield. One of these days, he's going to take it to the house; let's hope he's saving it for this Saturday or the trip to Columbus.

Miscellaneous Minutiae

  • Jake Ryan. If he keeps this up, he is easily an All-American this season. As Michigan's top playmaker and havoc-wreaker, he has been that good. For a number of reasons, it's hard not to watch him and see a Michigan version of Clay Matthews running around out there. Ryan led Michigan in tackles with 11, also pitching in 3.5 tackles for loss, including a forced fumble (that led directly to a score) and 1.5 sacks. I hope he's not lactose intolerant, because many milkshakes were consumed by Mr. Ryan on Saturday.
  • Kenny Demens. After a period of time during which Joe Bolden and James Ross were coming dangerously close to challenging Demens and Morgan for their starting spots, Demens has sort of flown under the radar of late. However, he too had an excellent game manning the middle on Saturday. Demens racked up eight tackles, 1 TFL, and recorded Michigan's first non-Taylor/Gordon interception of the season, one which Hoke attributes to studious work in the film room. Don't get me wrong, I'm excited about Bolden and Ross. But, for now, Demens needs to be the guy in the middle, and he very clearly is.
  • Thomas Rawls. Okay, so, not to be a wet blanket here but let me say a couple things. I spent the offseason previewing Alabama in preparation for 9/1, and a couple points I made about Rawls's Alabama equivalent, Jalston Fowler, would seem to apply. Fowler racked up a not insignificant amount of yards last season as Bama's #3 option (behind Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy), often in garbage time. Now, running the ball against a college defense is hard no matter what, but it's a little easier to do when the other team is tired after having been beaten down to a lifeless powder. As awesome as it's been to watch Rawls run these past two weeks, let's not forget that he hadn't done much before this point. The image of Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri absolutely leveling Rawls on the edge is still very fresh in my mind. In short, Rawls did have a great day (9 carries, 90 yards, TD), but if you excise the long TD run he only rushed for 27 yards on 8 carries. He has a role on this team, one that will likely increase as this season hurtles forward, but Fitz is still without a doubt the starter.
  • Honorary designations of honor. Desmond Morgan was bestowed with the honor of wearing Gerald Ford's #48. PARDON ME, but learning all of these new numbers is a bit of a chore. DO YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE. I SAID PARDON. PARDON. It's a joke, you see.
  • Movin' on up. Denard continues to move up the charts in all sorts of statistical categories; he is now tied for third with Leon Michael Hart on Michigan's list of rushing touchdown leaders. With 41 rushing touchdowns to his name, he is now only surpassed by Anthony Thomas and Ty Wheatley. Passing the A-Train, who had 55 scores during his time running behind absolutely monstrous offensive lines, seems to be a tall order, but Denard only needs six in order to tie Wheatley.
  • 3rd/4th and short D. Remember how fun 3rd and 4th and short was last season for the defense? Well, Michigan continued that dominance on Saturday. Ryan and Demens combined for a key 3rd & 1 stop on the Illini's first drive, one that neared midfield. Later on, Demens knifed through an opening and stonewalled Donovonn Young on 4th & 1 at the Michigan 41. Note that Demens was untouched on his way to Young; the defensive line, particularly the interior, has gotten much, much better.
  • Vincent Smith injury note. Vincent Smith was held out with a hamstring injury on Saturday, which is fine, as they pretty obviously didn't need him. However, with a blitzing, aggressive MSU team coming to town next week, the Wolverines will need him in the game to keep Denard clean on passing downs and leak out for the occasional screen/checkdown. Get better, Finger Gunz.
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