By Andy Andersen
FINALLY MSU, THE BIG TEST, IS NEXT!
The Wolverines avoided what well might have been a “trap” game in pounding the University of Illinois late Saturday afternoon. Sandwiched between what was considered at the time to be a very good Purdue team in last Saturday’s Big Ten opener, and just before the game of the year against the Green Meanies from the East, Illinois was considered easy pickings by some. Quite probably because of their lackluster 2-4 win/loss record prior to arriving in Ann Arbor, with an offense generally considered to be ineffective, and a talented but underachieving defense.
The Wolverine Coaches and player spokesmen all reiterated the mantra cited in the title, which is another, if more elegant, way of stating the oft used coach speak of “one game at a time”. No Michigan State talk was allowed prior to the Illini’s appearance, although some media tried mightily to evoke a response regarding the Spartans, but only succeeded in trying Hoke’s patience on the subject. When Hoke was asked about the subject post Illini, the answer from him, and the players was tomorrow.
Saturday’s results proved the team must have realized the wisdom of that counsel, and must have realized that their opponents would bring their “A” game, if the Wolverines allowed it, no matter the hype or lack of hype preceding the competition.
No doubt some M players remember participating in that dreadful 2009 loss at Illinois which deep sixed a season, 13-38. It was a watershed game which helped destroy the Rodriguez regime by setting up a disastrous season, and some certainly remember the remarkable game a year later that broke scoring records in M’s triple overtime win, 67 to 65. While it was entertaining and an exciting game to watch, both teams proved that defense was a thing of the past for each of them that year.
It is remarkable how far M’s defense has come from 2009 to last Saturday. And a great deal of that improvement is in the form of a determined defensive Wolverine, Jake Ryan. Credit him with 7 solo tackles, and four assists, for a remarkable total of 11 tackles, and 4.5 tackles for loss. He is a remarkable blend of speed, agility, and the desire to hit. But it is his motor that may be most obvious. Jake takes his football seriously. LB Kenny Demens played well, gathering in an interception, making 3 solo tackles with 5 assists for a total of eight tackles.
Desmond Morgan’s stats were almost as good. He has been assigned the Legend’s Number 48, which honor’s a great Wolverine center, Gerald Ford. That Desmond calls Grand Rapids home as did Gerald Ford, is a coincidence. Quinton Washington is seriously contributing as are the DBs. And so is Greg Mattison, obviously providing extensive experience and grey matter to the defensive success.
The 13 points allowed in the three prior games seems valid proof of team defensive progress. Before Saturday the Wolverines led the Big Ten in pass defense, and were seventh nationally. I haven’t checked, but I assume they still do.
Coach Hoke on the defense…”The guys were well prepared. Part of that was Kenny Demens on his interception. We had worked the route. He had seen the formation. (Linebackers coach) Mark Smith did a great job with him, teaching. He jumped the route. He knew what the play was going to be. It tells you about the kids and the teachers they have as coaches, who are doing a great job with them. I think we played hard. We will look at film tomorrow, or even tonight, and we’ll know a little bit more. But, I thought we were a very physical football team.”
If there is a lack of Illinois offensive capability, it was not in the form of Nathan Scheelhasse as he is their bright spot, as he was in 2010, and prior years. He can throw to their best receiver, Ryan Lankford, and there are other offensive players that can help the experienced Big Ten quarterback. But that offense was generally thought to not be enough to whip the Wolverines at home. Prior to Saturday, the Illini were outscored 82-28 in the second half. Actuality: The Illinois nightmare continued, with the Wolverines putting 45 to zip on the board. Now it is 127 to 28.
Nathan has put up tons of points in his career, but Illinois is in the first year of Tim Beckman’s head coaching tenure, and there is a new offensive coordinator. Some Illini are missing former Head Coach Ron Zook. Actuality: Scheelhasse’s influence on the out-come of this game was limited because of injury in the second quarter. Both Illini QBs managed to throw 7 completions for 29-yards. On the ground they had 37 attempts for 105-yards. Their receivers dropped catchable passes.
Coach Beckman has been beleaguered in his earl tenure at Illinois. First for trying to benefit by gathering strays from the distraught Penn State herd of incumbent players when they were first beset by their program’s well-advertised misfortunes. More recently he was caught with a “chaw” during a game, which is strictly verboten. He has apologized, but the Big Ten remains firm, and will not install spittoons, brass or otherwise, on the sidelines, even in the cause of sanitation. Actuality: Saturday’s loss to the Wolverines did little to enhance his coaching resume at Illinois. It appears the Illini are struggling as much as any team in the Big Ten, right now, and probably more.
Their defense is experienced and talented, but its players have been labeled underachievers this year. Would they break out this game? Actuality: The Wolverines ran 51 times for 353-yards and 4 TDs. Robinson got two of them, Rawls one, and Toussaint got one. The Illinois defense did not break out, but continued to struggle the entire game. Underachievers still describes their defense.
There was speculation as to the type of passing game M would deploy. Would they try to throw downfield and abandon the basic passing game they used against Purdue, or use both. Actuality: Jeremy Gallon streaked 71-yards to a TD in his only catch early in the game. Roy Roundtree had a single 33-yard catch, and could have had more had he not dropped a couple. Gardner, Toussaint, Dileo, J. Robinson, Funchess, Esterline and Rawls all had one catch. Funchess scored on an 8-yard catch near the corner of the south end zone, and a thing of beauty it was. Seldom used Dylan Esterline had a 7-yard catch near the end of the game, and his teammates were still patting him on the back as they approached the tunnel.
Could they run by getting Fitzgerald Toussaint revved up, or would they in desperation try Thomas Rawls earlier in the game. Hoke made a reasonably plausible excuse for Fitz’s non production at West Lafayette stating Purdue chose to stop Fitz, and let Denard go because of Fitz’s 170-yards against them last year. Time will verify or deny the plausibility of that premise. That Fitz would start is reinforced by the stated policy of Coach Borges which endorses one designated tail back to get most of the carries, but that doesn’t mean the clock isn’t ticking for Fitz as crunch time is now. Actuality: Fitz started and both Fitz and Thomas Rawls had carries. Fitz gained 66-yards on 18 carries and had one TD. Thomas had 9 carries for 90-yards, with a 63-yard TD run. I hope we see Rawls more in short yardage situations as Fitz did not score twice on one series from about the two. Vincent Smith did not play, suffering from a tweaked hamstring.
Coach Hoke on the improved play of the tailbacks: “(Thomas) Rawls is a difficult guy to tackle. In the spring, he punished us a bit and in fall camp. I think Thomas is improving and he’s really grasped more of the offense, when you get into protections and passing games. Then you get to Fitz (Toussaint). There were two runs, to be honest with you. I thought that he maybe danced a little bit, but there were some runs where he really went vertical, north and south, made a cut and went downhill.”
Will there be offensive line issues? Did they adequately run block, and pass protect? Avoid penalties? Actuality: They were adequate, and workmanlike. 45 points helps prove it, as does 527-yards of total offense.
THE GAME IN BRIEF:
The Illni received and the Wolverine defense slowly forced a punt. On their 5th play Jeremy Gallon snared a Denard pass and galloped 71-yards for the game winner. This reception was Gallon’s career long and longest scrimmage play of the season. M went up 7-zip.
Then the Wolverines produced a 65-yard, 9 play drive, ending in an 18- yard field goal. 10-zip.
Denard celebrated his return to action by engineering a six play drive that ended with Denard scampering 49-yards for his second rushing score. This was a remarkable run featuring his ability to escape with quickness, agility, and speed. M 24-Illini 0.
Early in the third quarter, Kenny Demens stepped up and grabbed his first career interception on a magnificent play in which he appeared to recognize exactly which route was coming. Denard hit TE Devin Funchess with a high and highly accurate pass that Devin collared, and managed to get the necessary foot down in bounds. M 31-Illini 0.
Thomas Rawls rolled round right end for a 63-yard score, and that’s all there was. Game over. M 45- Illini 0.
This was another good step up the championship ladder with disaster averted by a wide margin, on a rainy, dreary, cloudy day, with a constantly slippery football due to conditions. The weather did not hamper the Blast From The Past.
Again it was a Denard Robinson day. With 41 rushing TDs, Denard became the eighth player in NCAA history to rush for 40 TDs and throw for 40 TDs.
Many off the bench played. Among them were offensive players Esterline, Kwiatowski, Williams, Mateus, Burzynski (Barnum injured), Gunderson, Bellomy, Kennedy, Hayes, Kerridge, Glascow, Houma, Jackson and Reynolds.
Defensively they were: Clark, Ojemudia (fumble recovery), Pipkens, Ash, Black, Heitzman, C. Gordon, Bolden, Ross, J.Wilson, and M. Robinson (a leader on special teams he blasted down a return man before the ball got there, thereby achieving the moarre spectacular penalties of the day).
This is great for both team morale and individual technique.
Finally, the slug fest that is the Michigan State game is at hand. They will roll into Ann Arbor smarting from their usual perceived slights from the University of Michigan, and their most recent loss at Iowa. Last year MSU won its many close games. In a couple of instances that has not been true this year.
It is up to the 133rd edition of the Wolverines to keep it that way.