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Michigan vs. Illinois Preview

I know this game should be a cakewalk. Every inch of my being tells me that this is a game that Michigan should win handily. Illinois has been putrid so far this year, and Tim Beckman has somehow been a downgrade from Ron Zook. However, I can't get over the past few years when this game always ended up meaning something more.

Bradley Leeb-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Michigan vs. Illinois (Homecoming)

October 13th, 3:30pm; ABC

In the last four years, arguable no game has been a bigger barometer for Michigan's season than the Illinois game. That I can say that with a straight face should be enough to convey just how bad it got. The Illini weren't a strong team; this was still a squad deep in the final death throes of the Ron Zook experiment. Yet, every year Michigan walked into the game against Illinois and walked out with something approximating a portrait of the rest of the season.

The 2008 game was that of Illinois quarterback Juice Williams, the 500-foot tall robot that dismantled the Michigan defense on the way to a big, lopsided win in Ann Arbor.

The next year, Michigan's hot start to the season was perfectly mirrored in the Illinois was the abrupt wall that the team hit as the bottom fell out and the worst case scenario became, "oh shit, this is happening."

We all know about 2010. Offense, offense, offense. It was the story of Michigan's season, and no game better encapsulates the brilliance of Michigan's offense and the ineptness of its defense like the 67-65 triple overtime thriller against Illinois.

Even last year fit with the narrative of the season. Defensive rebirth led to a complete shutdown of an Illinois offense that didn't need much help shutting itself down, and the offense was equal parts Denard Robinson and Fitz Toussaint en route to an easy win.

So, yeah, Illinois looks like the worst team in the Big Ten. I get that. I might still need a couple quarters to readjust to this new reality where Illinois is just another doormat and not the game that most exemplifies Michigan's season as a whole.

Better yet, I'll change my outlook after the game -- or at least once it is well in hand. I don't want to make that mistake again.

When Michigan has the ball

Now, to be totally honest I haven't watched a lot of Illinois football this year. Bits and pieces of plays in between flipping the channel to more interesting contests has been about the extent of my exposure. However, I still feel pretty comfortable in saying that, above all, the biggest failure of Tim Beckman six games into his coaching tenure at Illinois is squandering quite a bit of defensive talent. You don't need to watch. Results man, they're all over the stat cards and scoreboards.

It wasn't something a lot of people paid attention to a year ago, what with Michigan State choking the living daylights out of most of the Big Ten and Michigan's astounding defensive rebirth, but Illinois put together a downright great defensive season. Had the offense not folded in on itself like a clown on a prop folding chair, this team could have easily been in contention for the Leaders division title.

It all started up front where Illinois was one of the most disruptive defenses in the nation. Led by Whitney Mercilus, the Illini ranked 6th in sacks per game with 3.15 and 4th in TFLs per game with 7.9. Those are national rankings. In the Big Ten alone, Illinois was the second best statistical defense when it came to rushing yards allowed and total yards allowed. This was a solid unit through and through, and one led by a bevy of impressive individual playmakers.

This year, Illinois has taken a big turn towards being awful despite bringing back a lot of the same players from a year ago. Michael Buchanan is back starting at end after a strong season in 2011 and both Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster are back on the interior of the line as starters. Jonathan Brown returns in the middle and Ashante Williams will once again hold down the hybrid LB/S position after breaking into the starting lineup late last year. That is five starters in the front seven back from a top three Big Ten defense, as well as a number of reserve contributors stepping into more prominent roles.

Despite this, Illinois has taken a sizable step back so far this year on defense against a number of iffy teams. The pass rush that was such a terror a year ago is almost non-existent. Illinois is 89th in sacks (1.5 per game) and 90th in TFLs (5.0 per game) this year. The run defense is 38th giving up 125 yards per game, but that number is helped out considerably by WMU's -6 rushing yards in the season opener. Everyone else in the FBS has gained well over 100 yards on the ground against Illinois.

Michigan's ground game hasn't been spectacular, but the Wolverines will be the stiffest rushing test that Illinois has faced this year. With Michigan's offensive line slowly rounding into form and Denard Robinson continuing to be the kind of big play rushing threat we've come to count on, Michigan should have plenty of success on the ground. Especially considering that while Spence and Foster are experienced players, neither are the caliber of defensive linemen that of Louis Nix or Kawaan Short is.

And while the story of the game will most likely be that of Michigan's rushing offense trying to exert its will on Illinois, things don't exactly look rosy for the Illini when the other team is passing the ball. While the schedule has included a few pass heavy teams, Illinois is still just 97th in pass efficiency defense on the year and 63rd in pass yards allowed. This is all despite bringing back both safeties, Supo Sanni and Steve Hull, as well as starting corner Terry Hawthorne. Hawthorne might not even be available if his concussion tests don't come back negative giving him the okay to play.

Michigan won't pass the ball a lot (fingers crossed) but there will be room do to so against this secondary as long as Borges once again picks his spots in the passing game and Robinson is able to set the tone running the ball.

The Outlook

Michigan should win this matchup pretty convincingly. Penn State and Wisconsin both put up over 30 points, and neither team has shown much life on offense otherwise. Arizona State put up 45 in a blowout. But the most disheartening defensive effort was against Louisiana Tech when the Illini gave up 52 points en route to a blowout loss.

Vic Koening, where have you gone?

Advantage: Michigan

When Illinois has the ball

Before we get into this year's team too heavily, let's remember what finally got Ron Zook fired: last season's stark offensive regression at midseason.

Over the first five games of the season Illinois surpassed 450 yards three times and 500 yards twice. Over the last seven games, Illinois highest yardage total was 366 yards (against Purdue) and the Illini didn't even make it to 300 yards four times (not to mention just 301 yards against Wisconsin).

How did Illinois get so bad so quick? A large part of it is Nathan Scheelhaase, who threw ten touchdowns over the first six games and only three over the final seven. That includes: two sub-100 yard passing games, five interceptions in the same span, and a benching during the final regular season game against Minnesota.

Scheelhaase is back -- as is backup Reilly O'Toole -- and unfortunately for the Illini he looks a lot like the quarterback he was over the back half of last season. He has more interceptions (five) than touchdowns (three) and has just 659 yards in four games of action. O'Toole has better stats, but only because he racked up five of his six touchdowns against Charleston Southern (a team that is Illinois-level terrible at the FCS level). That Scheelhaase is still the starter is a major indictment of O'Toole.

As a team, Illinois has a passer efficiency rating of 129.05 -- good for just 78th nationally -- despite the fact that O'Toole's inflated numbers have him at 158.87. All of this adds up to a team that just won't be able to pass the ball for anything against Michigan on Saturday. The Michigan secondary has looked increasingly competent, and with Jake Ryan and the ends doing a better job getting pressure, and the tackles finding ways to get push inside, there won't be much time or comfort to be had to pick apart Michigan's back seven. Both Raymon Taylor and JT Floyd have their issues in pass coverage, but Illinois doesn't have a guy like AJ Jenkins who is capable of exploiting the mismatches. And hell, even if Jenkins was back, Floyd all but shut him down a year ago.

Perhaps the bigger problem for Illinois is that the running game has all but disappeared. Illinois, when it was at its best a year ago, was a punishing running team that could beat you with option looks that emphasized both Nathan Scheehaase's speed and the athleticism of the running backs.

This year Illinois is 94th in the nation in rush yards per game with 126. Of course being 109th in sacks allowed (3.33 per game) doesn't help those numbers much, but it does point to a larger problem. The offensive line returns a few starters, including guards Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton. The fact that Pocic is 6'7 and plays center is dumbfounding, but he is the senior member of this line. The further you work outside, the less experience you find.

Michigan's defensive line has played much better than anticipated these past couple games, and there isn't anything to lead one to believe that this game will be a regression. Michigan's defensive success has started up front, and if the defensive tackles can continue to eat blocks and push into the backfield, Michigan should see another big game from the linebackers, which will in turn help grind the Illini ground attack to a halt.

Donovann Young flashed some potential last year as a freshman, but he is still just a guy, and six games into the season he hasn't even passed 250 yards on the season. Of course, Illinois' second and third leading rusher both lie south of 200, so this isn't a huge surprise.

The Outlook

If Michigan's defensive revival holds true through this game -- and there is no reason to think that it shouldn't -- then Michigan should have a pretty easy time keeping the Illinois offense in check. In the five games that weren't against FCS opponents Illinois maxed out at 366 yards and even failed to crack 300 twice. Nathan Scheelhaase will have to get his groove back quickly or else the offense is going to fail to generate the consistency required to keep drives alive and keep Michigan's offense off the field.

Advantage: Michigan

When someone is kicking the ball

Illinois is breaking in a couple new kickers in Taylor Zalewski and Nick Immekus. Both have missed half of their field goals thus far (Zalewski has attempted four, Immekus just two). Illinois is also a little better than average in net punting as Justin DuVernois has 35 punts for an average of 41.8 yards.

Michigan's kickers are well known. Gibbons is good until it gets out around 40 yards and Will Hagerup has reclaimed his place as Michigan's resident monster-legged punter.

Advantage: Michigan

Odds and Ends

Key Matchups:

  • Michigan's defensive line vs. being what we thought it was - A big factor in the elevated play of the defense these last few weeks has been what the defensive line has been able to bring to the table. If the line is playing good football, the linebackers are clean and everyone is happy.
  • Al Borges vs. Getting Cute - Come on Al, dance with the one that brought ya, okay?
  • Michigan's offensive line vs. all of our fears - If Michigan can't spring a running back for 100 yards against this defense, then it might not happen this year. This would be bad.
  • Jake Ryan vs. the edge - Ryan has looked like a better player this year, but option-ish teams tend to pick on players in his position. If he can keep making plays on the outside it could shut down Illinois' offense completely.

Alternate Programming: Whet your appetite for Big Ten football with the penultimate battle for the Leaders division. Yes, I'm referring to Wisconsin vs. Purdue. Once you've made it through five minutes of that, click over to Oklahoma vs. Texas for real football. Notre Dame plays Stanford at the same time as Michigan's game. The night game of choice is South Carolina vs. LSU, because 6-3 games are the way god intended football to be played.

Inanimate Object Threat Level: Three. Unless this game is close, then I'll probably burn my house down in a fit of rage.

Final Predictions:

- Denard Robinson goes a second game without an interception, but he also throws less than 20 passes.

- He also goes over 100 yards rushing. So does Fitz, which causes everyone to shut up until the week after when he has another 15 carry, 25 yard game.

- Frank Clark is going to do something that will make your jaw drop. Might be a turnover, might now. Either way, be ready for something cool.

- Kovacs gets his first pick.

Michigan rolls in this one, 38-10.