Gregory Shamus - Getty Images
On a rain soaked day, Michigan took Illinois to the woodshed in one of the most lopsided Big Ten beatings of the year thus far, and despite Michigan's offense putting up 500+ yards and 45 points on the Illini, the defense may be a bigger story.
I spent a long time this off season selling on the Michigan defense.
"They can't keep up that level of production," I thought, "not with a completely retooled defensive line and what is almost certainly going to be a return to earth on fumble recoveries." It wasn't so much skepticism of Mattison, the secondary, or Will Campbell (wait, it actually was skepticism about Big Will) as much as the worry that this unit still had too many depth and youth problems to overcome, and that in the end it was most likely that the defense would be good, but worse forcing turnovers, third-down stops, as well as run defense overall.
I was wrong. Mea culpa.
What Greg Mattison has done with this year's defense is beginning to look like it is as impressive as last year's turnaround. The defensive line has consistently improved over the past few weeks and now the unit is controlling the point of attack and clearing room for the linebackers to flow to the ball and make plays. Those linebackers are having the best month of anyone on the defense. Kenny Demens is the sure tackling machine we always expected while Desmond Morgan is showing the kind of instinctive play that will keep him in the starting lineup for the next two and a half years.
And my god, Jake Ryan. The RS-So. put together quite possibly the best day of his young career against Illinois a week after harrassing Purdue's defense all over the field. He is a dangerous pass rusher, a sure open field tackler, can take on blocks, and hold up on the edge. His unique skillset and athleticism is perfect for the SLB position. At one point after a roll out Riley O'Toole set up to throw downfield, but what should have been a normal throw ended up being rushed because Jake Ryan was on O'Toole immediately. I couldn't help but audibly gasp as it happened live.
All of the success up front has allowed the secondary to focus on pass coverage and provide help on the edges. If not for JT Floyd's less than ideal run support skills, there would be very little to complain about -- and that is with Michigan's top corner, Blake Countess, done for the season with an injury.
The road will certainly get tougher down the line. Northwestern, Ohio State, and Nebraska are all capable of moving the ball, and despite the fact that both teams look anemic right now, Iowa and Michigan State will pull out all the stops when they come to Ann Arbor.
Thankfully, it looks like the defense is ready for anybody's best shot.
With Illinois completely on the ropes late in the third quarter, Michigan's "unorthodox" sophomore linebacker came off the edge with a chance to put the exclamation point on the Wolverines' first shutout of the 2012 season.
Only problem was, he was rushing too hard.
"I was actually coming around and I slipped, I went in there too fast," Ryan said after Michigan's 45-0 win over Illinois. "But I looked back and he was still in the pocket.
"So I got up."
Reign - The Hoover Street Rag
I don't know that you can call 45-0 "workmanlike" because there were a lot of exciting plays in the game, three scoring plays of 49+ yards will do that, but the whole game just felt like "This is an opponent on our schedule. Let's go out and do what we did in practice and everything will be A-OK." Denard continued to look like the mature senior quarterback we wanted him to be (7 completions on just 11 passes in a rainy day in Ann Arbor when you didn't really need to do much more helps the cause.) Denard's 33 yard run in the second quarter when he returned to the game after tweaking his pinky is a perfect example. Younger Denard would have tried to make the end zone, get the last ten yards and get the touchdown. Instead, Denard ran out of bounds, took the first down and then two plays later ran it in for six yards for the TD. Solid positive decision making.
Michigan 45, Illinois 0 - Touch the Banner
Michigan's backup quarterback situation is shaky. Russell Bellomy struggled somewhat. He let a snap squirt right through his hands, and he completed just 1/3 passes. I'm not a huge fan of what I've seen out of Devin Gardner as a quarterback, and I do think Bellomy has potential down the road . . . but boy, does he look shaky right now. He wasn't helped out by his receivers, though, who had their hands on both incompletions; but Bellomy looks afraid to push the ball down the field, and he's not very crisp running the plays. I'm going to try to enjoy Denard Robinson while I can, because the quarterback play might be really iffy for a couple seasons.
Michigan thrashes Fighting Illini, 45-0, at Michigan Stadium - The Michigan Daily
In the victory, Robinson became the eighth player in Big Ten history to surpass 10,000 yards of total offense, and he posted his 18th 100-yard rushing effort, putting him in a tie for fourth place in Michigan history. "I just go out there to play football," Robinson said. "I just go out there to have fun with the team and worry about winning."
Five plays that changed the game - Maize and Blue News
Denard being Denard: There are few if any players in college football that can do what Denard Robinson did on the opening possession of the second half. While the Wolverines had solidly controlled the game through the first two quarters, they carried only a 17-0 lead into halftime. On the first drive of the second half, the Maize and Blue moved the ball to midfield, when the senior signal caller put on a show. The Wolverines ran what could best be described as a quarterback iso play up the middle, with Robinson keeping the ball by design. The blocking up front wasn’t perfect, but the senior made a quick jump cut to the right to avoid a defender, juked a linebacker and cut to his left, dashing 49 yards for the score.
Michigan Football Blog: Illinois Photo Gallery - Maize n Blue Nation
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 7 - ESPN's Big Ten Blog
4. Michigan's defense is the Big Ten's best unit right now: No disrespect to Ohio State's offense, which is surging, but Michigan's defense has taken its play to the next level the past four games. After surrendering just 13 points for three straight weeks, Michigan blanked Illinois 45-0 for its first shutout since a 58-0 shellacking of Minnesota last year. Led by standout linebacker Jake Ryan, the Wolverines surrendered just 134 yards and only one first down in the second half against the Illini. Linebacker Kenny Demens continues to make plays, and the secondary limited Illinois to just 4.1 yards per completion. Michigan has surrendered an average of just 211.3 yards in its past four games and seems to be hitting its stride at a perfect time as Michigan State's slumping offense comes to the Big House. The Wolverines are generating more takeaways and preventing the big play. If the unit keeps up its play, Michigan will be very tough to beat in a softer-than-expected Legends Division. We put this label on Michigan State's defense before the season, and while the Spartan D hasn't been the problem there, Michigan's defense under coordinator Greg Mattison is a notch above the rest.