What once looked like a collision course toward a heavyweight battle late in November has become a little less dramatic as the Illinois Fighting Illini have dropped two straight ahead of a trip to Ann Arbor. The Michigan Wolverines have held up their end of the bargain so far, but this is no longer likely to be a preview of the Big Ten Championship Game.
Still, this is a matchup full of talent on both sidelines. The Illini are a pleasant surprise in a questionable Big Ten West, and while there are some holes that need to be addressed, there is also some legit talent on the roster as well. If Michigan wants to stay undefeated heading into Columbus, the home side must be careful in a couple key areas.
Michigan Offense: Improve through the air
It is no secret that the Wolverines have struggled in the passing game as of late, and at this point in the season it is fair to be a little disappointed in where J.J. McCarthy is as a passer. However, he is by no means a negative in this department, despite growing incompletions; if anything, the wide receivers are to blame in their struggles to both separate and hang on to the ball.
The task does not get any easier against a very good Illinois defense. The Illini secondary has been elite this season, dominating stats at a national level: first in passer rating, first in interceptions, second in yards per attempt, and fifth in yards per game. This is not a great sign for a Michigan team that has seemingly regressed in this department as of late.
Illinois is led by Devon Witherspoon, Jartavius Martin, and Sydney Brown, PBU machines who have not allowed much of anything through the air. Witherspoon is a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist and is allowing just about a reception per game. McCarthy will likely lean on Ronnie Bell and the tight ends to get open across the middle, but this could be another shutout in terms of deep shots down field.
Michigan Defense: Contain Chase Brown
As of writing, it is unclear if Chase Brown will be able to go this weekend, but given the importance of the game and how his health is trending, it looks like the dominant running back is going to give it a shot on Saturday. Even banged up, this is one of the tougher assignments for the Michigan defense this season.
Brown leads the country (including Blake Corum) with 1,442 rushing yards, averaging 5.2 yards per carry and finding the end zone seven times. He sits first nationally at 28 carries per game and has essentially been the Illini offense in Big Ten play. He is not a huge factor in the passing game, but does bring in a few receptions each week and has scored three times as a receiver this year.
The Wolverines have stopped just about every running back they have faced, but Brown is no slouch. This is going to be a physical game that requires both good discipline and sound tackling, and Illinois is very committed to this strategy. The only other impressive running game Michigan has seen this year was Penn State, and the Nittany Lions did rush for over five yards a carry, which is more than the defense wants to cede this weekend. The defensive line has been solid all season, but this is the nation’s leading rusher.