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Three Illini to watch against Michigan this weekend

One of the best running backs in the country comes to Ann Arbor.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The media’s biggest knock on the Michigan Wolverines the season has been their schedule. A flimsy non-conference and a lack of major Big Ten opponents to this point have not given the maize and blue a chance to bolster their resume.

This Saturday’s game against the Illinois Fighting Illini was supposed to help change that narrative, but they have lost their last two games to Michigan State and Purdue. They went from a 7-1 team ranked No. 16 in the country and having a two-game lead in the Big Ten West, to an unranked, 7-3 squad in a four-way tie for first in their division.

Coming to Ann Arbor and leaving with a win is going to be a tall task for Bret Bielema and his staff. A few weeks ago, this looked like it was going to be one of the premiere games on Michigan’s schedule. Now, they are just as dangerous, but the nation is starting to think a lot less of them because of their play in the last two weeks.

Illinois will be fighting for its lives in the Big Ten West on Saturday against Michigan and will be eager to prove its play thus far has been no fluke. Here are the three players that will need to have strong performances this weekend to push the Wolverines to the brink.

RB Chase Brown

Few running backs in the country can rival what Blake Corum has done for the Michigan offense this season, but Chase Brown is one of them. Brown leads the country with 1,442 rushing yards. But an injury last week against Purdue limited the junior ]to just 23 carries, his lowest total since Oct. 1 in a blowout of Wisconsin.

Bielema told reporters on Monday Brown is “trending in the right direction” to suit up against the Wolverines this weekend. He will be the best back Michigan has faced this season and likes to think of himself as the best in the country:

The good news for Michigan is it has shut down every running back it has played this season. That includes holding Penn State Nick Singleton to 19 yards on six carries and Nebraska’s Anthony Grant to 22 yards on 11 carries. Both those backs are in the top-45 running backs in the country in total rushing yards.

Michigan’s rush defense is No. 1 overall in the country allowing just 72.7 yards per game. It’s an unstoppable force against an immovable object in the Big House this weekend. A big game for Brown could result in a close contest.

QB Tommy DeVito

One thing Jim Harbaugh is weary about with the Fighting Illini is quarterback Tommy Devito’s ability to tuck and run. He’s rushed 58 times this season for a measly 79 net yards, but he has four rushing touchdowns.

With Brown in the backfield, DeVito can also make defenses pay when they aren’t paying attention. It’s something the Wolverines’ defense has not been tested by too much this season, so his play on the ground could be a threat.

Another factor is DeVito takes care of the football and is wildly efficient. He’s completed 70% of his passes this season and has 15 touchdowns to three interceptions. In a ground and pound offense like Illinois’, a quarterback who manages the game and takes care of the ball can cause problems for even the best defenses in the country.

S Sydney Brown

There are plenty of defensive players who could have made this list, but the best of the bunch is safety Sydney Brown, the brother of running back Chase Brown. Over the last four weeks, Brown has four interceptions. He also has a forced fumble from earlier this season and is second on the team in solo tackles.

Brown is one of the most veteran players in the conference. He is in his fifth year with the Illini and has been a starter since his true freshman season. That adds up to 48 career starts for the senior safety.

Whether it is lining up as the deep safety or hovering over the slot in a nickel package, Brown has the chance to be a difference maker in this game. He has had the hot hand with turnovers over the last few weeks and he leads a secondary that has snagged 16 interceptions this season.