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Takeaways from Michigan’s win at Illinois: A stressful win that had no business being that way

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The Wolverines deserve credit for fighting back when things got tough, but it never should have gotten tough against...Illinois?

NCAA Football: Michigan at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan football roared out to a 28-0 lead on Saturday against Illinois, but things got dicey late, allowing the Illini to score 25-straight points to get it to a one-score game early in the fourth quarter. The Wolverines would put it together on both sides of the ball and score the final 14 points to walk out of Champaign with a 42-25 win to move to 5-1 (3-1 B1G) on the season heading into the defining stretch of the 2019 season.

Let’s start out by saying that fans should absolutely be happy with a road win in conference play. It does not matter that Illinois is terrible. These are hard to get when you leave the friendly confines of your own campus.

That said, you’d be right to feel underwhelmed or even slightly embarrassed with Saturday’s effort, if even for just what went down in just over a quarter of football. Michigan led 28-7 at the half and it felt like they left some chances on the field for it to be even more.

They would follow that up coming out of the locker room with two three-and-outs and a Tru Wilson fumble. Illinois would ride that into the 25-straight point scare that made this thing closer than it ever should have been.

Michigan deserves credit for waking up once the game got to a three-point deficit, but it never should have gotten to that point. Not against this Illinois team, who was playing its backup quarterback and is slightly better than Rutgers is.

A team that lost to Eastern Michigan.

Hats off to the Wolverines for making enough plays late to avoid disaster, but if you are disappointed heading into a night game at Penn State next weekend, you have every right to be. I do not think this is entirely a poorly-coached football team, but it also is not currently one that inspires much confidence that they can go on the road and win a game in Happy Valley and then win any number of games against Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State.

Michigan continues to be the major factor that hinders Michigan from realizing its full potential. For almost three quarters, they played pretty dominating football, but the foot came off the gas at some point. It’s hard to get that back, but credit to them for doing so.

Therein lies the biggest positive of the day.

At the end of the day, Michigan racked up 489 yards of offense, got its run game going with two 100-plus yard rushers in Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins and still left plays on the field. You absolutely cannot make those mistakes and leave plays on the field in a much more horrifying environment next week. At some point, perhaps they will figure this out.

Now, let’s get into some of the other stuff.

  • Like many Michigan fans, I was ready to see what life at quarterback without Shea Patterson would look like, especially when things started to go sideways in the third quarter. He finished the day 11-for-22 for 194 yards and three touchdowns, but was off with a lot of underthrown balls, some questionable reads and general sloppy play. With Dylan McCaffrey suited up, it seemed possible we might get a look at “the other guy” this week, but the Wolverines stuck with him. And it would probably wind up being the right decision. In the fourth quarter, Patterson gained 70 of the 79 yards on Michigan’s scoring drive and picked up a clutch 4th and 2 on a run in the redzone that allowed them to go up 35-25 to stop the bleeding and put it away with a 1-yard touchdown run to go up 42-25. This staff is making it clear that they are going to ride Patterson until they cannot anymore and he technically did not turn the ball over on Saturday. It was a windy day, which can hinder accuracy, but he made enough plays to get his team up early and then made plays late. If they were going to make the switch to McCaffrey or Milton, it would have had to be early in that third quarter after the first handful of three and outs. Once Illinois got to within three, they were forced to wait to see if the bottom fell out first before switching to a guy who hasn’t played in three weeks or a raw, third string quarterback.
  • I’m not quite ready to crown the Michigan offense as turning the corner after a performance against Illinois where they had nearly 500 yards of total offense. They’re only slightly better defensively than Rutgers is and they actually got whatever they wanted for most of the day until the Illini made an adjustment in the third quarter. It took Michigan almost a full quarter of its own to adjust back, but they figured it out nonetheless. It still is baffling they cannot find a way to scheme up some ways to get Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black and (an absent from Saturday’s game) Nico Collins the football more often, but Ronnie Bell continues to flash big play ability and right now is your most consistent wide receiver.
  • The defense had its fair share of issues on Saturday, but made enough plays to (for the most part) stifle the Illinois offense. They played without Lavert Hill and Kwity Paye on Saturday, so all hands were not on deck as they work to get those guys healthy for next week’s game at Penn State. Matt Robinson (yes, related to former Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Robinson), gave them a bit of trouble in this game as well as wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe. Those guys playing well coupled with Michigan mistakes got the Illini back into this football game.
  • Ben Mason on offense used to be fun, but in a handful of tries in 2019, it has provided some disastrous results. At Wisconsin, they put the fullback-turned defensive tackle-turned running back in during a redzone drive and he fumbled the football away. Saturday, his presence on offense led to a silly 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness after hitting someone at the end of a route on an incomplete pass intended for him. It eventually would lead to a 3rd and 25 and a missed field goal for the Michigan offense.
  • Jordan Glasgow continues to make plays all over the field on defense and special teams. He’s important despite cries that he should not be playing by some pockets of fans.
  • It felt like Michigan lost momentum late in the first half after the Charbonnet fumble. Harbaugh and his staff’s decision to not work on a two-minute drill opportunity with the football at the end of the half with three timeouts felt weak at the time and still does after the game. Illinois is terrible and this would have been the perfect time to work on something like that. They received a pretty decent first half performance from Patterson and the offense and I understand wanting to sit on the ball after a turnover, but the wind left the sails a bit, at least that’s what it looked like.
  • The win is good and all, but it leaves you even more concerned about the stretch of games coming up. The chances of this team winning at Penn State seems slim and with a performance like today, perhaps even the game at Indiana might be trouble, too. Then there’s ND, MSU and OSU. None of those games feel like gimmes right now. Not one of them. Seven weeks into the year, that is pretty eye-opening. Have we seen enough progress since the Wisconsin game to feel like they can execute against three of the top ten teams in the country currently, as well as a rivalry game against a team that might view beating you at your place as what saves its coaching staff? It honestly does not. We’re in that critical stretch that we talked about being all that mattered this season and the optimism is low. That is a scary, scary place to be.