Friday, October 19, 2007

First Road Test: Michigan at Illinois Preview

Michigan will enter tomorrow’s game at Illinois coming off its most impressive performance of the season in last week’s 48-21 victory over Purdue. The Wolverines looked like the team they were expected to be at the start of the season. With the victory, big Blue re-entered the top 25 at #24 in the AP poll for the first time since their preseason ranking of #5 before losing to Appalachian State. Illinois is experiencing the opposite. After reaching a ranking of #18 after back-to-back upset victories over Penn State and Wisconsin, Illinois was upset by Iowa 10-6 last week sending them out of the top 25. Still the Illini have surprised Big Ten country this season and have an offense that provides a real threat to the Wolverines.

Illinois Offense vs. Michigan Defense:

The big story coming into the game has to be Illinois’ spread offense with a mobile quarterback. Quarterback Isiah (Juice) Williams, has passed for 716 yards while rushing for 319 for the year. In the two losses for Michigan this year, both Appalachian State and Oregon had similar mobile quarterbacks. Michigan has yet to prove that they can stop a guy at the helm such as Juice Williams. In addition, the Illinois offense has been led by running back Rashard Mendenhall who is 3rd in the country in yards per carry averaging 6.5 ypc. He has run for 839 yards and 10 TDs so far this year and has some considering him as a Heisman candidate. Together, Illinois is leading the Big Ten and is eighth in the country in rushing with 243.4 yards per game. On the outside, Juice Williams can look deep to wide receiver Arrelious Benn who is a threat to score anytime he touches the ball. In addition to being the leading receiver on the team with 424 yards on the year, Benn has also rushed 23 times for 134 yards and has returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown. This offense certainly has plenty of weapons to hurt the Wolverines and behind a veteran offensive line led by Senior LG Martin O’Donnell, this will be the biggest test for the Wolverines since the Oregon game.

Michigan’s defense, however, has rebounded since the first two games. The front seven led by sophomore end Brandon Graham and linebacker/defensive end (and Butkus Award semifinalist) Shawn Crable has done a great job getting pressure on the quarterbacks and stuffing the run. The secondary also has stepped up with junior #1 cornerback Morgan Trent surprising many with his improved performance this season. The defensive played arguably their best game of the season last week against a high-powered Purdue passing game, with the first-team defense limiting the Boilermakers to just 7 points before they scored two touchdowns in the final two minutes against the Wolverine reserves. However, during this five game winning streak in which the defense has shown improvement, Michigan has not faced a mobile quarterback such as Juice Williams. In the last decade Michigan has had trouble stopping an offense led by an athletic quarterback and this will be a true test to see if the Wolverines defense has learned to keep contain on such a player. The key to the Wolverines defense is to, first and foremost, slow down the running game with Rashard Mendenhall and limit the big plays on the ground. When Williams drops back to pass, the defensive line needs to apply pressure on the outside and the linebackers must keep contain to limit Williams’ gains to manageable amounts without letting him get into the secondary. Still, since the Wolverines have not proven they know how to handle a mobile quarterback, the advantage has to go to the high-powered Illini attack.

Advantage: Illinois

Michigan Offense vs. Illinois Defense:

The Michigan offense also is coming off their best performance of the year. The only question is the health of Heisman should-be front runner (please excuse the journalistic bias) Mike Hart. Hart went out of the game last week in the second quarter with an ankle injury, but not until he racked up his seventh straight 100 yard game. Hart was walking around on the sidelines in street clothes during the second half, but was not dressed to play. Most players expect Hart to play, but coach Carr says it is a game-time decision. Assuming Hart is in the lineup and mostly healthy, this will be a test for the Illini defense. With senior signal-caller Chad Henne seemingly getting back into the swing of things after sitting out a couple games, the passing game is starting to get to where it was at the end of last season. Mario Manningham returned last week, following a one game suspension for the Eastern Michigan game, in a big way with a career high 147 yards on 8 catches, two for scores. Adrian Arrington also has developed into, perhaps the team’s most sure-handed option this year along with sophomore Greg Matthews Jr. starting to become a weapon as well. Couple that with the nation’s leading rusher in Hart, Illinois will have their hands full. Even if Hart does sit, Carlos Brown, the third string who came in with backup Brandon Minor also getting injured, showed that he can carry the load with 13 carries for 68 yards and two impressive touchdowns.

To try and stop this Wolverine attack, Illinois’ defense will be led by Butkus award candidate LB J. Leman. Leman is sixth in the nation and first in the Big Ten in tackles per game averaging 11.6 and seems to flock to the ball. He will spearhead the experienced Illini defense who returns nine starters from last year. The main priority will, undoubtedly be to try to slow down Mike Hart and the Michigan rushing attack that averages 201 yards per game. Illinois has been a tough team to run against this season giving up only 103 yards per game. But, Michigan’s offensive line, SHOULD, be too tough for that Illini front seven and open up some holes for Hart and Brown. In the passing game, Michigan can really take advantage of an Illinois secondary that has given up 255.4 yards per game through the air. Michigan should look to the outside to Manningham and Arrington who will be going against two, young sophomore corners in Vontae Davis and Dere Hicks. Although young, however, Davis is second in the Big Ten in interceptions with 3 on the year and is capable of making a game-changing play. The key for Illinois will be to get pressure on Chad Henne and force him to make quick decisions. Henne’s decision-making has been questionable this year and he will have to do a better job of making good choices and not throwing into coverage. If he does throw a couple picks, it could be a long night in Champaigne. But the rushing attack should be enough for the Wolverines to overwhelm the Illini.

Advantage: Michigan

Special Teams:

Illinois’ special teams is head and shoulders above the Michigan special teams. Placekicker Jason Reda is 9 for 9 on field goals this season for Illinois with a couple coming from 50 yards. Reda is approaching school records for points scored and field goals made, and is nearly automatic. Of course, on the Michigan side the game of musical chairs at that position continues with kicker K.C. Lopata currently holding the placekicking duties. Lopata has done a solid job thus far being 4-4 on field goals all coming between 30-40 yards. But Lopata has not been tested in a hostile environment and the inconsistency by the field goal unit in protecting the kicker cannot comfort Michigan fans. Michigan does have a big advantage in the kicking game with Zoltan Mesko continuing to be the lone bright spot on special teams averaging 41.1 yards per kick. Illinois punter Anthony Santella is only averaging 35.9 yards per kick, which should result in good field position for Michigan when they can stop the Illini. In the return game, Illinois has shown an ability to score. Arrelious Benn has taken one of his 3 kickoff returns back for a touchdown and Vontae Davis has taken one of his 2 punt returns back for a touchdown. Michigan’s return game continues to be a question with no one quite stepping up to prove to be a game-breaker. Greg Matthews has shown elusiveness in the last few weeks, but still has not shown an ability to break a big return.

Advantage: Illinois


Illinois head coach Ron Zook took over at Illinois in 2005. That season, Zook started 15 freshman and sophomores having the youngest team in the country. That season Illinois went 2-9 and followed that with another young team going 2-10 last season. This year, though, Zook and the Illini have turned the heads of many around the Big Ten and the country and sit at 5-2 and in the thick of the Big Ten title race. He is certainly a coach of the year candidate and has a way of motivating his kids. Lloyd Carr, for the Wolverines, has done a good job turning this team around after losing the opening two games of the season. Even though things looked bleak, the Wolverines have turned things around and are currently undefeated in the Big Ten and also sit at 5-2 overall. The main concern with the coaching this weekend, however, is if the staff has figured out how to counter an offense like Illinois’ with a mobile quarterback. The staff has not shown that ability in the last ten years and until they do, I have to give the advantage to the opponent who runs a spread.

Advantage: Illinois


The Wolverines will have to go into a hostile environment playing in Memorial Stadium in Champaign at night. The game has been announced as a sell-out and this will be the first true road test for Michigan. The game at Northwestern was said to be more Michigan fans than Northwestern so big Blue will finally see what it is like to play in a loud opposing team’s stadium. Illinois’ is coming off a deflating loss, which knocked them off their cloud from beating Penn State and Wisconsin back to back. Michigan on the other hand is coming off their best performance of the year against Purdue where they finally looked to be clicking on all cylinders. And though they are back in the Top 25, the Wolverines still should have a chip on their shoulder to prove that those first two games do not represent what this team is capable of.

Advantage: Michigan


Illinois 34 Michigan 24

If you listen to Game of the Week (Friday 7-10) or Extra Points (Monday 6-6:30), you may know that I am very superstitious when it comes to Michigan picks. Lately, I have been picking against Michigan and I will continue to do so. Michigan is a three point favorite and I made my pick to have Illinois cover the spread too. Hopefully, I am wrong again.

Player of the game: Juice Williams: 8-10 142 yards 1 TD Passing
15 carries 189 yards 2 TD Rushing

- Rushi

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