The Michigan Wolverines narrowly avoided a disaster on Saturday against the Illinois Fighting Illini. They came out of the game hot and jumped to a quick 28-0 lead in the first half thanks to an efficient ground game headed by Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins.
The defense was playing lights out and was suffocating the Illini’s offensive game plan, while Patterson had maybe his best half of the season in Champaign.
However, it was pretty obvious the Wolverines took their foot off the gas when they were up big, and Illinois never gave up.
It started in the waning moments of the first half as Illinois put together its first coherent drive of the game which ended in a touchdown. The Michigan defense turned sloppy and it began with a veteran leader of the secondary, Josh Metellus.
On this play, Metellus gets lost in the route and loses his protection of the Illinois wide receiver.
This is a play offenses love to run against a man-to-man defense. Two receivers lined up on one side of the football, the interior wideout wheels around the receiver on the outside while the outside receiver cuts in. It confuses the defenders and makes it difficult to maintain coverage. Here, Metellus covers the wheel route rather than the man cutting in, and Illinois starts the drive out strong because of it.
A few plays later, Illinois quarterback Matt Robinson scrambles out to his left, and members of the secondary leave their assignments to try and make a play.
This time it is Cam McGrone who rushes late, leaving a receiver wide open behind him. A couple uninspired and poor tackle attempts later, and Illinois scores its first touchdown of the game.
Michigan comes out of the gates in the first half with the football, but instead of looking to strike back to regain some momentum, they go three and out on very conservative playcalling. Patterson fumbles on a botched exchange with Charbonnet, then Charbonnet gets stuffed and a dangerous short pass that should have been intercepted ended the Wolverines’ drive and put Illinois’ offense right back on the field.
That offense began to run tempo and was all over the Michigan defense. The defensive line was getting pushed around, and the secondary was playing undisciplined football.
Watch here as both Khaleke Hudson and Brad Hawkins try to jump a route, and fail, resulting in a first down for Illinois.
Both wisely saw a slant coming, but instead of playing it safe and staying in their coverage, both tried to jump the route too early and Illinois kept the chains moving.
Little mental mistakes like this kept the Fighting Illini in the football game and helped them move the ball downfield on Michigan.
It certainly didn’t help that the Wolverines’ offense kept putting their defense back on the field. Michigan held the ball for less that four minutes in the third quarter after another quick possession.
This defense hardly got a break, and the up-tempo style offense that Illinois was running quickly depleted their energy. Illinois was winning the battle up front and controlled the line of scrimmage throughout the entire quarter.
On just a couple plays apart from each other, this was exemplified as Illinois punched the ball in for a first down on 4th and 1:
This is a moment the Wolverines have to win to completely squander the hopes of a comeback, instead the momentum continues for Illinois and they do the same thing on 2nd and Goal from the 1-yard line.
This is exactly the kind of tough, hard-nosed football the Michigan defense wants to play, and TWICE on the same drive they get beat. Just like that, Lovie Smith and his team cut the lead to just 11 points.
A fumble by Tru Wilson to start the fourth quarter once again gave the ball back to a Illinois offense who had figured out how to beat this defense. Vincent Gray got beat in coverage for a huge gain, a screen pass fooled a Michigan blitz, and all of a sudden the Fighting Illini were back inside the 10-yard line.
What happens? Well the Michigan defense gets beat on yet another short yardage situation:
Mike Danna gets sealed in and the Illini run right outside of him leaving Hawkins as the only man to beat. The Michigan defense, especially the defensive line, had a horrible 20 minutes of football lasting from the end of the first half to early in the fourth quarter, and it nearly cost them the football game.
With the teams remaining on their schedule, the Michigan defense cannot let up and they need to put together complete games. They need to control the line of scrimmage and create penetration, even if they have a lead. If not, they could be in for a world of hurt in the final six games of the season.