The latest version of the Illinois Football team rolled into Ann Arbor to challenge the then six win, no loss Wolverines. The Fighting Illini were burdened by a recent four loss skid, to which Maryland added another loss Saturday. Their losses included North Carolina, rising Western Michigan, Nebraska, and struggling Purdue. They avoided sinking to the Big Ten basement with last Saturday’s 24-7 whipping of Rutgers. That loss firmly fastened Rutgers football to the floor of the B1G, a fate the Illini escaped by its Rutgers win.
Under the tutelage of first year, but highly qualified Illini Head Coach Lovie Smith, the Illini rolled in hoping to change their luck, but the task could not be managed against the three or four ranked Wolverines. The AP poll had M at three, while the Coach’s poll held them at four.
As the Wolverines were 35 point pregame favorites, the ability of the Fighting Illini to top the Wolverines predicted 35 points seemed an improbable, if not impossible accomplishment for the Illini, Fighting or not. Many Wolverine fans feared the bye week blues
The Wolverines had scored 300 points in six games, producing a 50 point average per game. If the first half Wolverine onslaught had continued all the second half the Wolverines would have certainly achieved or exceeded fifty, but three things happened. Later in the game, Harbaugh took his foot off the accelerator, substituted freely, and the Fighting Illini made some adjustments. Even so, 41 points was more than enough.
The Fighting Illini were thought to not be able to stop the run or effectively pass and that proved true as they managed only 107-yards running and 95 yards-passing Saturday. In contrast the Wolverines amassed 309-rushing and 291-passing. M piled up 29 first downs, Illinois just 6.
FOR A TIME, GARY MOELLER AND BO SCHEMBECHLER WERE AT ODDS WITH THE ILLINI FOOTBALL OPERATIONS. Gary Moeller left the University of Michigan’s Assistant Coaching staff for a 1977 thru 1979 stint as the Illinois Head Football Coach. He did not win there, producing a dismal 3-34-3 record. He took the reins at Illinois to over-turn scandalous practices in running the football program there, and he was running a clean program. He was dismissed with hard feelings on both sides without getting to stay the full five years of his contract, which reasonable minds had calculated necessary to right the capsized program.
Welcomed back to the Wolverines, Gary returned to Bo’s staff as the M QB coach when Bo rehired him. He joined Gary in distaste for the Illini shennigans. M walloped the Illini 45/14 in 1980 and 70/21 in 1981 in a low scoring era. Was there a hint of retribution? Fighting Illini fans thought yes, M fans thought no. The Illini stopped that conversation in 1982, besting the Wolverines 6/16.
For a while encounters with the Illini were not friendly for M fans, but that ship has long since sailed.
HOMECOMING 2016: This was the 95th meeting Homecoming battle of the Fighting Illini and the Wolverines. The Wolverines have hosted Illinois for Homecoming 16 times with 15 wins prior to Saturday. Now it is 16 wins.
M had an 88 to 27 overall Homecoming record (excluding old time exhibitions) before Saturday’s meeting. The last time the Wolverines met Illinois in a Homecoming Duel was in 2012, with the Wolverines prevailing 45 zip. A continuing feature is the blast from the past composed of returning veterans of the M Marching Band. Hammering Hank Aaron was the honorary coin tosser to start the game, and Harbaugh said post game that he (meaning Aaron), gave an extremely inspirational talk to the team, which they appreciated.
SATURDAYS OUTTING WAS PROBABLY SPEIGHT’S BEST OF THE SEASON PER HARBAUGH. Coach Harbaugh had indicated that the bye week was to be a week of improvement and it was evident from Wilton’s comments that he took advantage of the opportunity to study film to hone his mind and procedures during the bye. The results showed. Harbaugh said post game that ” I thought Wilton Speight may have had his best game. It was windy out there. Whether we were going with the wind, or against it, he was throwing the intermediate/deep stuff—30-yards throws,35-yard, 40-yard .throws—they were on the money.” Harbaugh added, “Sometimes it is never as good as you think until you look at the tape. But I have a feeling that was his best game.” Speight was 16/23 for the day, tossing for two TDs, and 253-yards.
THE DEFENSE CONTINUES TO SWARM. The M defense has been the best segment of the team for the first six games this season, and that continued Saturday. Pregame, they were Number One in the following NCAA categories: Scoring Defense, Total Defense, Sacks, and in Allowed Third Downs. They were second in Pass Efficiency and TFLs. These numbers reflect great defensive credentials as good as any in the NCAA, and they probably were not diminished against Illinois.
The Wolverines prevented Champagne toasts in Champaign in spite of the fact that Lovie Smith is a highly regarded Coach at both college and pro levels. He is fresh from a head coaching stint with the Tampa Bay Bucs, and earlier with the Chicago Bears, and others. Lovie will hit the fertile Chicago area recruiting grounds hard, and they will become a football threat. But not last Saturday, not now, not yet, someday.
Lovie or not, the Illini were totally dominated by the Wolverines: offensively, defensively, and on special teams.
THE PEPPERS WATCH: Has played at least 13 different positions this year: Linebacker, free safety, strong safety, cornerback, nickel cornerback, quarterback, running back, wide receiver, slot receiver, running back, punt returner, kick returner, gunner and hold up. His Offense, Defense, and Special Teams performance Saturday were not extra special statistically Saturday, but were essential to his team.
Some have his chances categorized as fifth in line for the Heisman currently. Two factors will play a big part in a successful Heisman run for Jabrill. I believe that much of it is contingent on whether he continues to lead his team to victory and stars against teams like MSU, OSU, and the Championship game and in the playoffs. Both Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson highlighted their runs for the Heisman with spectacular special team’s returns for six against OSU.
If you want to get noticed that is about as good a time to display your talents as any on the schedule. Great football plays get noticed more against the best and winning teams-like the 1997 Wolverines.
While he was not a producer of spectacular of statistics Saturday, he still was all over the field, still the best player on the field. We are privileged to watch Peppers play football, Heisman or not. Its only going to get better.
SOME PRE-GAME NOTIONS FULLFILLED OR FAILED: Some thought the Wolverines would score more than their season’s average of points, more than 50 points, and that the Wolverines would dominate on offense, defense and special teams. Reality: They failed to do so for reasons described above.
Also, it was thought the second and third teams would play much of the second half. Reality: Indeed they did. Wilton Speight was relieved after the third quarter, by John O’Korn.
It was thought that we would see 5 running backs, with a healthy Drake Johnson on tap and effective. Reality: I did not note a Drake Johnson appearance on the field. D. Smith had 18 carries in the first half for 86-yards and a TD. Karan Higdon had the run of the day, a 45-yarder, and was impressive with 8 totes for 106-yards. Afterwards, Harbaugh lauded his vision and acceleration and vision. His great run, the nicest run of the day occurred late in the second half, and improved an otherwise somewhat boring second half, when took the handoff, cut to the east sideline, veered towards the post on a zig zag course, and bulled in for six. It was the Wolverine’s last score of the day, and the best run. He had an impressive 13.2 yards per carry.
Ty Isaac had an excellent game too, with 10/48-yards.
Chris Evan took a knock-out blow to the helmet ear piece and was down for the count. He finally arose and walked off. I certainly do not know if the concussion protocol will apply. We will hear more as the week goes on, but after the game I heard optimism regarding his situation from a reliable source. I hope he gets to show the Spartans his abilities. Before injury he ran effectively. Some great still photos by UM Go Blue Photographer Del Callihan showed the hit, the fall, the aftermath, and seemed to me to indicate targeting, but there was no call. The reliable Khalid Hill rammed in from 3-yards out for another TD.
There was a significant change to the left side of the offensive line and it seemed to work well. Ben Braden played at left tackle and Ben Bredeson played at left guard. It seemed to work. Juwann Bushell-Beatty did not play,
THE WOLVERINES AGAIN DISPLAYED A GREAT SET OF RECEIVERS. The usual suspects contributed-the big three: Butt, Darboh, and Chesson. 8 other players copped a pass, including fast Eddy McDoom and Tyrone Wheatley.
Again the list is headed by Amara Darboh. He had 27 and 30-yard receptions for 99-yards. Jake Butt went 3/40 and caught a 22-yard TD.
TE Tyrone Wheatley caught his first collegiate TD pass and was beaming about it afterwards. It was a 21-yarder.
THE WOLVERINES v THE FIGHTING ILLINI. Famed baseball player Hank Aaron was the honorary coin tosser. He spoke to the players earlier and his comments were much appreciated by them and Coach Harbaugh.
Illinois won the toss and deferred to receive the second half. The Wolverines immediately and seriously went to work putting up 21 points in the first quarter.
To start, Smith, Isaac, and Higdon contributed short yardages, but it was a streaking Eddie McDoom that got 33-yards to the Illinois 20. Peppers got short yardages both catching a pass and rushing and the football was at the three. Jake Butt got it the three yards into the end zone to break the scoring ice via a Speight pass.. M was up 7 on their first possession.
On the next M series, Chris Evans made a nice 16-yard run but was blindsided and kayoed, and the ball went to the ground. It was recovered by Jake Butt to enable a 21-yard TD pass to Tyrone Wheatley. Partly as the result of poor defense by the Illini, he could not have been more open, and he made the catch. M up 14 to zip. He had lined up as a wide receiver at 276 pounds.
The defense held again, and fast Eddie McDoom rushed for 19-yards. After some short yardage rushes, Chesson caught one for 13-yards got it to the Illini forty. Darboh caught a 20-yarder. After a short rushing gain, Speight ran for 10 and the first down. He was roughly pushed out of bounds. No flag. Eventually the Illini were called for PI, and M was at the 1. Kahlid Hill moved the scrum and M was up 21 to zip. M had 21 first downs in the quarter, Illinois 3.
Early in the second quarter, K. Hudson blocked a punt and it went out of bounds at the M 47. Smith rushed for 13, Peppers for 4, Higdon for 16, D. Smith lost 4, Amara Darboh caught a 27-yard pass. Peppers rushed for 3. D. Smith ran for a 4-yard TD. M was up 28 to zip.
M’s Dymonte Thomas made a great interception at the Illini 29-yard line to stop a threat.
Kenny Allan whacked a 23-yard field goal for a 1st half final of 31 to zip.
To start the second half, Illinois received, and they were forced to punt. M returned the favor. At about the ten minute mark M’s Mike McCray recovered a fumble, but M returned the favor as Chesson fumbled and the Illini recovered at the M 20. Four defensive plays later the Wolverines had the ball again.
The Wolverines produced a 10-play, 60-yard drive that resulted in Kenny Allen’s second FG on the day, this time from 27-yards. M up 34 to zip.
Early in the 4th quarter, John O’Korn was at QB. Ben Gideon fumbled and recovered to stall the drive.
Then the Wolverines did the unthinkable and let out a 43-yard Illini TD pass, and the zip went bye-bye as it was now 34 to 6. A 2-yard 2 point conversion attempt was good and the Illini had managed 8 points to the Wolverines 34.
It didn’t take long for the Wolverines to answer. A couple of short rushes, and the stunnining beautiful 45-yard gallop by Karan Higdon made it a final score of M- 41, I-8. This run extended Higdon’s yards per carry to 13.2 per attempt.
Now it is time to bring on the Spartans in one we have been waiting for all season. Five losses indicate that the Spartans are not going to repeat their reign as Big Ten Champions, but it does not indicate that the Spartans will not come out fighting in this next “Championship” game.
They may no longer reign, but they want to rain on the Michigan Parade in any way possible. It will be a scrap on their turf.