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Illinois at No. 3 Michigan Preview: Cut to the Chase

Puns aside, arguably just one player stands between the Wolverines and Columbus.

Michigan v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

For 10 weeks, the Michigan Wolverines have gone out and taken care of business. Just one more game awaits before the highly anticipated showdown in Columbus, with the Illinois Fighting Illini coming to Ann Arbor. A bit of the shine has fallen off this matchup after a pair of Illini losses, as the Big Ten West crown has all but slipped away for the visitors.

Jim Harbaugh has not had any trouble in pre-Ohio State tune-ups since taking over. His only loss directly preceding The Game came in 2017, when a bad Michigan team lost to a top-five Wisconsin squad, so narratives about overlooking teams like Indiana, Maryland, or now Illinois, have never materialized into anything.

The Wolverines are big favorites again, but Illinois should put up a fight. This is the No. 4 defense per SP+ (one spot behind Michigan), and while the offense is Iowa-like at No. 97, Chase Brown is one of the most dangerous players on the schedule thus far. Columbus looms large, but one more game to wrap up at home first.

Illinois Fighting Illini (7-3, 4-3) vs. No. 3 Michigan Wolverines (10-0, 7-0)

Date & Time: Saturday, Nov. 19, Noon
Location: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich.
TV/Streaming: ABC

Bread and butter

With Illinois’ excellent defense and Michigan’s struggling passing game — plus a traditional November forecast — the script is already written for how Harbaugh will approach this one. The Wolverines have run the ball at will all season, and while it would be nice to give Blake Corum some rest, especially with Donovan Edwards a little banged up, this will be the formula once again.

Do not be mistaken, the Wolverines are certainly the better team here, but this is also the type of matchup that suggests caution might be the right way to go. This looks to be a quicker (read: fewer possessions) type of game, and a mistake or tow makes the upset a little more possible. Meanwhile, sticking to its guns should give Michigan complete control and security.

It is clear that Harbaugh wants to give J.J. McCarthy some opportunities to finally get the vertical passing game going, but so far that keeps coming up empty. Now facing a secondary that is near the top of the rankings in pass breakups and interceptions, the task only gets tougher, with the downside also a bit riskier, so do not expect a prolific aerial performance.

Air yards are not this passing game’s strength, but Michigan does earn some longer completions thanks to YAC. McCarthy hits his crossers well and is fine placing the ball in open pockets on medium-length outs. At this point in the year, it probably makes sense to shift away from straight go routes and instead scheme some better throws downfield.

Lock it down

This season, Illinois has been synonymous with Chase Brown, the nation’s leading rusher. While Corum is arguably the more talented back, Brown has the yardage and the usage, metrics where he leads the country. The Michigan defensive line has held its own, but no one outside of Penn State has really been of this caliber.

If there is a criticism of Brown it lies in his efficiency. While he does rank first in total rushing yards, he is nowhere near the top at 5.2 YPC. Additionally, Illinois has just five runs of over 30 yards this season, with only one of those topping 40. Brown does not have a carry over 25 yards since the first week of October.

Is this offense really equipped to sustain multiple long drives against the Wolverines? Brown is unlikely to hit home runs, and neither is the passing game under Tommy DeVito. The Syracuse transfer has a strong 70 percent completion rate, but the yardage is modest and this is certainly a run-first team under Bret Bielema.

There is of course going to be at least one frustrating deep completion, as there is every game, but otherwise this is the side of the ball that will decide the game. The defense has not allowed more than 10 points since the Iowa garbage time touchdown, and there is no reason to think the Illini are going to change that now.

A fitting end to the journey thus far

For a while it looked like Illinois would be the savior for Michigan’s (overly) criticized strength of schedule, but consecutive losses to Michigan State and Purdue have dramatically changed the perception. This would still be a good win for the Wolverines, but there is no rankings boost to follow.

No, this is just another week for the Wolverines. Illinois has the fourth-worst offense in the Big Ten per SP+, so while the defense has definitely been better than expected, this is a one-sided team that does not match up well with Michigan, especially with how the maize and blue have been playing as of late.

I have long argued that Michigan should not be dinged for its schedule, though, as one can tell a lot about a team from how it plays on the field, even against lower competition. The Wolverines have dominated nearly every week and doing so again would be a great way to wrap up what effectively serves as an 11-week ramp-up before the real test. This time of year, any strong outing helps, so might as well add one more to the list.