What once looked like a Big Ten Championship preview, the matchup between Michigan and Illinois this weekend lost its luster with the Illini dropping their last two games and probably eliminating themselves from the title race.
Even though they may not be as formidable as once thought, this is still a much better Illinois team than usual and Michigan can’t be looking ahead to Ohio State. These few players will need to be on their A game to preserve Michigan’s undefeated record.
DT Mazi Smith
The Illini are coached by Bret Bielema, which means they want to pound teams into the ground on offense, similar to what Michigan does. Led by an offensive line that was named as a semifinalist for the Joe Moore Award, star running back Chase Brown is leading the nation in rushing yards with 1,442.
Brown got hurt last week against Purdue and his status is uncertain, but Illinois will still want to try and control the line of scrimmage and time of possession. That’s where Smith comes into play. As the anchor of the defensive line, Michigan will need Smith to hold up against double teams and create stuffs to keep Illinois’ offense behind the chains.
WR Cornelius Johnson
Illinois’ secondary is led by star cornerback Devon Weatherspoon, but more injuries suffered in the last few games have decimated the rest of the unit. Their other starting cornerback went out with a concussion last week and Bielema revealed he will be out for the season. Illinois couldn’t put in his backup because he was already in a sling, and the fourth string was dealt a concussion as well.
This will allow Michigan to keep working on the deep passing game that has been off all season. Johnson particularly has had his struggles with drops and fumbles in recent games and could use a couple deep connections to get his confidence back. The Illini were also called for five pass interference penalties last week. As the biggest wide receiver in Michigan’s starting rotation, he’ll have the best chance to draw those penalties and get first downs even without catching the ball.
G Zak Zinter
Before its lackluster past couple weeks, Illinois’ run defense was dominant. It held six of its first seven opponents under 100 yards and under 3.0 yards per carry. But recently the front has softened a bit, allowing Michigan State to crack 100 yards while Purdue gained 142. It still took plenty of attempts, though, with Purdue only averaging 4.3 yards per carry and Michigan State at 3.8.
That means Michigan’s offensive line will need to maintain a high level of play against probably the toughest run defense it has faced so far. Zinter is starting to gain the recognition he deserves as a stalwart on the line and Michigan will have to fight the NFL to keep him. Paired with Olu Oluwatimi, those two will be responsible for creating holes for the running backs as Michigan maintains its offensive identity.