By Andy Andersen
Michigan faced their venerable old Big Ten foe, Illinois in Champaign Saturday. While Illinois featured no Red Grange, or Dick Butkus, and the Wolverines no Tom Harmon or Charles Woodson in their lineups, there was a strenuous competition with plenty of talent on the field for both sides. Michigan’s Denard Robinson and Jason Scheelhasse can provide football fireworks with the best of them. One hundred thirty two points in last year’s three overtime 67-65 classic is all the proof needed.
There was plenty at stake this year. The Wolverines are still in the Legends chase statistically, although that possibility became more moot with the loss last week to Iowa. They needed desperately to add to their 7 wins on the season to erase visions of similarity with their slides the past three years.
Ron Zook’s Illini opened the season with six straight wins but could not stand that much prosperity, and promptly engineered a three game losing streak which had erased much of the early season euphoria and the national ranking gained by that spectacular opening.
That Saturday it became a four game losing streak is much to the credit of the defense. Mike Martin had 9 tackles Ryan Van Bergen 7 plus 2.5 sacks. JT Floyd ran an interception back to enable a subsequent score and played well otherwise.
These are teams that have a long history of interaction. Michigan’s Pete Elliot (Bump’s brother) was Head Coach at Illinois, and Gary Moeller sojourned there as Head Coach for a while. Not overly successful in Champaign, and some resentful, he left to return to Michigan as an assistant again under Bo. For several years that put a little extra edge on the game.
In 2009, a loss to Illinois cemented a free fall in Rich Rodriquez’s first year. Caught from behind, M receiver Roy Roundtree just failed to score on a beautiful long run. His teammates could not remedy the defect by punching it in. The game turned for Illinois there, and the Wolverine’s left Champaign defeated and sliding towards the Big Ten Football abyss, having been defeated by a two win Illinois. This constituted a low for the Wolverines if one ever existed.
Pregame, there was concern that the Wolverines can’t win away from home. Ans: They are 2-2 away from home this year. They secured win Number 8 for the season before a hostile Illini crowd, adding evidence that this year’s Wolverines are not last year’s Wolverines. Also, there were concerns that Denard can’t throw the ball downfield accurately, and that he seems to have lost a step or two as the season progressed. Ans: While Denard at the throttle still gives Michigan its best chance to win, he made inexplicable errors today that helped the Illini keep as close as they were for most of the game. While he scored twice early in the game with nice runs, he fumbled twice, and threw an interception which helped keep the Illini in a game that could have been a rout, and he missed open receivers. His running does seem more tentative than in the beginning of the year. His tremendous upside is still there, and hopefully will show up to advantage in the next two games.
Denard had a TD called on the field, overturned by review, but a subsequent low snap on short and goal slowed him down enough to prohibit a score on the series. The red zone woes are accumulating, and they don’t all belong to Denard.
Coach Brady Hoke on the offense: “Believe me, there are times in there where we need to play Michigan football, which means we need to play better. We left a lot of points on the field in the first half. We were down in the red zone and for one reason or another we didn’t put the ball in the end zone — we miss a block here, we miss an assignment or whatever it may be — and Illinois executed, but we need to be much better than we were today next weekend.”
And there were questions whether the method of utilizing Devin Gardner is effective or not. Ans: Denard suffered what some are saying is a bruised wrist, and Devin took the controls later in the game. He had one big moment, engineering a possible game saver with a fourth quarter TD 27-yard pass to M. Odoms.
Hoke on Devin. “He did (make plays), and that’s why it’s so important to have that second guy who can come in. He did a nice job. He kept his composure, which was part of it, he was poised, and he did a nice job stepping up on the touchdown pass.”
Would the Illinois defense continue to shine, and would the Illini offense continue its recent struggles? Ans: Yes and yes.
Could M’s defense stop running back Jason Ford and clamp down on their productive passing game? Ans: It is hard not to heap superlatives on this performance of the Michigan defense. In the first half, the Illini had 30- yards of offense, and 37-yards rushing with 214 total yards for the game. They shut the Illini offense down for most of the game, but did yield two TDs late, but overall, the defense was superb. They showed up to play. One legal Desmond Morgan hit could have repositioned some fillings. This was a great team effort. Also fans questions whether or not Wolverines could protect the edges, containing Scheelhasse. Ans: For most of the game they did exactly that, playing great defense, but the defense did allow two late TDs later in the game.
Would the Illini or the Wolverines contribute to their own troubles by creating some defensive turnovers? Illinois had 8 TO’s in its prior three games. Each team had three turnovers. Illinois muffed a punt and let JT Floyd intercept and return for a 42-yards run which enabled a TD. Would special teams hurt or help and who? Jeremy Gallon had good punt return yardage and Mike McGolgan recovered a muffed Illni punt.
The first half was Michigan’s with two hundred-thirty nine yards to thirty. Ten M 1st downs to 1. One hundred fifty-seven rush yards were mostly contributed by the emerging Fitzgerald Toussaint who had 192-yards for the game on 27 carries against a very good run defense. He started the game with a 65-yard TD scamper. Subsequently, Denard had two short TD runs and the half ended M-14, Ill.-0. Only Michigan mistakes kept it that close.
The offensive funk returned in the 3rd quarter, with a 27-yard field goal being the only M score. M-17, Ill. 0.
Illinois would not leave it at that, scoring late in the third on a 13-yard Scheelhasse run. M-17, Ill.-7.
In the 4th quarter, Devin Gardner hit Martavious Odoms for a 27-yard score after Denard sat down due to injury. Breathing room is restored and it is M-24, Ill.-7.
With only 3:12 left the Illini produced an 80-yard drive, with a Ford TD run, and it is an uncomfortable 24-14.
Fitzgerald Toussaint burst for a 27-yard TD and the game was won 31-14.
Having established a genuine semblance of a “Michigan” defense, it seems the Wolverines can compete in their next two games, Nebraska and Ohio. The competition will be tough nuts to crack, but it is possible with whole team effeciency. A nine or ten win season would be remarkable.