Friday, October 3, 2008

Game 5: Michigan vs. Illinois

Coming off the emotional high some say the Wisconsin game will propel Michigan to contention in the Big Ten race. Wait a second, this offense was terrible in the first half, still gave up 220 passing yards to a heavy running Wisconsin team, and cannot hold the ball on special teams. This team has alot of work to do week to week if they want to compete for any title, just as Rodriguez said. Hopefully the team came back to Earth after the win, because Illinois is still a team that might be better than Michigan right now and is certainly better if Michigan continues to the turn the ball over. Having said that, Illinois has struggled this year including a 20-17 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette. This is a winnable game for the Wolverines.

Michigan Offense vs. Illinois Defense:

Even if you disregard the awful first half in which Michigan had -7 passing yards (yes negative). Even if you disregard the three fumbles in that half along with Threet’s first two interceptions, this team still cannot move the ball consistently against a solid defense. This team proved in the second half that they live and die by the big play. The offense could only move the ball consistently on the first touchdown drive culminating in the Kevin Koger 26 yard touchdown reception. The next score needed a roughing the passer penalty on 3rd and 15 and then led to the huge 36 yard TD run by Minor (big plays and big breaks). And the final offensive score needed the 58 yard miracle run by Threet. Michigan’s offense has only three drives of ten or more plays this season. They have not proven they can consistently move the ball at all. The reason Michigan won that game because of a shift in momentum the magnitude of which happens once every twenty years. The surge of big plays that occurred in the game will not happen again and this team needs to learn to move the ball. Or continue to play solid defense, for a change not turn the ball over, and wait for a couple big plays to get some scores. I don’t think we are going to suddenly see an offense that can move the ball, unfortunately, no matter how bad Illinois’ defense is.

Fortunately, Illinois defense is prone to giving up big plays. They are not so great. The supposed strength of the team at the start of the season, the defensive line, has hugely underperformed. And unlike Michigan, where I attribute it to a lack of schematic aggression, Illinois has blitzed and still has not been productive on the defensive front. They rotate nine guys on that line and have some talent there. #81 Will Davis was an all Big Ten DE last season, but is off to a slow start with 2 sacks coming off his 9.5 sack season last year. I would not be surprised to see him breakout for a couple more though against Michigan’s front. On the other end, Doug Pilcher #95 who had 5.5 sacks last year has 0 so far and only 1 TFL. The Defensive tackles have underperformed too. But one of them, #94 Dave Lindquist, had his best career game last season against Michigan with 2 sacks. For whatever reason though, this unit has struggled this season. Even against EIU. The defense gives up 182 rushing yards per game. That can also be attributed to a linebacking corps that is ok, but has been slow to get to the ball and has tackled poorly. #44 Brit Miller is a 1st team Big Ten talent and leads the Big Ten in tackles with 11 per game. He also has 7.5 TFLs, a sack, a TD on a fumble recovery, and an INT. #45 Rodney Pittman has been alright this season with 18 tackles and 5 for loss. The big disappointment in this group is #2 Martez Wilson who is 6’4” 246 and extremely fast. He was a five star recruit two years ago, but takes terrible angles, has been terrible in coverage and seems to be the Illinois’ fans’ Stevie Brown except he plays linebacker. He might not play much tomorrow though as Zook said he wants to play a nickel 4-2-5 much of the game.

This plays hugely into Michigan’s hands, IMO, as Notre Dame ran the same scheme. Also, Wisconsin was much more talented than Illinois. Illinois’ has a pretty shaky secondary too, with the exception of All-American corner #1 Vontae Davis. He will probably shut down a slightly hobbled Greg Matthews and hopefully Threet does not try to force it into tight coverage. Davis can and will make him pay if he does. The rest of the secondary for Illinois is not so good and should be easily exploitable. With Stonum out though for disciplinary reasons, Hemingway out with Mono, and Robinson questionable someone else like Savoy, Clemons, or Odoms has to step up big. Also, Koger, who had the big grab last week, might have a bigger role. If Illinois stays in the Nickel, Michigan should have some more success running with McGuffie and that should help loosen Threet up as it did vs. Notre Dame. Expect some better running and when Illinois blitzes, some quick passes to Odoms, Koger and maybe Clemons which could go for big plays or at least a consistent 5 yards. Illinois does not have the speed and talent with the safeties to stop the screen plays like Wisconsin did. Hopefully Threet can get the ball there.

Illinois has struggled mightily on defense and has openly expressed the need to change it up after the PSU game. Yet, the mighty Ron Zook has decided to keep the starters the same. Whenever we play Illinois, I count on Zook to help us out. This might help us out huge. While Michigan will still stink at times on offense, expect them to have a running game and actually have 2-3 nice drives and a couple more with the fortune of some big plays. Moving the ball will be easy, but Illinois has forced 8 turnovers on the year including 5 fumbles. Michigan needs to hold on to the ball for the entire game or they’ll pay. They should be better, but there is no way I can give them the nod here until they prove they can be somewhat consistent.

Advantage: Illinois

Illinois Offense vs. Michigan Defense:

While Illinois defense has struggled, the offense has not. Led by mobile QB Juice Williams, this spread team reminds me a little of Utah and that could mean trouble. Illinois is averaging 444.5 yards per game this year including 215 yards on the ground. Williams is the team’s second leading rusher and despite losing Rashard Mendenhall, Junior Daniel Durfene (#22) with 396 yards on the year averaging 6.7 YPC. Juice has improved as a passer, but still is completing under 60% of his passes. But he has arguably the Big Ten’s best receiver in returning freshman All-American #9 Arrelious Benn. Been is used both as a passing target and in the running game and is going to be a tough cover for Michigan. He plays in the slot alot, but I’d think Michigan still has to keep Warren or Trent on him, preferably Warren, taking them out of their element on the outside. If one of the safeties (Stewart, Harrison, or Brown) is found on him, expect a big play for Illinois. Benn needs to be kept in check and hopefully gets as few touches as possible because he is fast. Juice doesn’t have many other proven receiving targets, but he does have a great and reliable tight end in #16 Michael Hoomanawanui. I am not looking forward to saying his name tomorrow. Unfortunately, we may have to say it alot as he has 12 catches for 169 yards this year and has picked up 5 first downs this year as the third down go-to guy. If Michigan is not aggressive and plays back like they did against Utah, #16 will have a huge game; as will Benn and probably all Illinois receivers.

Luckily for the Wolverines, Illinois offensive line is not anywhere near Wisconsin’s and the D-line did pretty good against Wisconsin. Illinois has a pretty good left tackle in 5th year senior Xavier Fulton who was a preseason all Big Ten pick by many. Also, their Center Ryan McDonald is 1st team all Big Ten. Other than that, the two guards and the right tackle are not very good. The right tackle is a true freshman in Jeff Allen who started his first game last week against PSU. Graham or Jamison (whoever gets on his side) should feast on the young guy. The O-line as a whole has been very susceptible to blitzes and if Michigan blitzes, they should pressure Williams alot and, if they bring zone blitzes, they should be able to stop the run in the backfield pretty consistently.

The key here is Michigan’s aggressiveness. If they lay back like they did against Utah, and don’t blitz electing to stay in soft coverage, not only will Illinois have the short middle of the field open for 10 yard passes and for Benn to get the ball and take off, but Illinois will run the ball down Michigan’s throat out of the spread in the zone read and option. While Michigan should have one guy, preferably Ezeh, keeping contain and spying on Williams, they should bring the pressure early and often. Like we say vs. Wisconsin, Shafer blitzed early and the D-line was able to take over in the second half. But, when they laid back against Wisconsin on the last two drives, rushing three most of the time, Wisconsin even drove it down the field through the air. Michigan needs to keep bringing the pressure or Illinois will have success. Plus, this offense has ten turnovers on the year. Putting pressure on Juice, will force him into bad decisions. He has six interceptions on the year, and has thrown one in every game. If Michigan brings the pressure, Illinois will struggle with the exception of probably a couple big plays.

Advantage: Michigan (If Shafer decides to bring pressure)

Special Teams:

“The return game is atrocious,” says Rich Rodriguez. That is about the only assessment you can give the return game with returners seemingly unable to just hold on to the ball, and when they do, they decide to dance in place instead of running forward (Harrison). Odoms and Horn are listed as kick returners right now, which seems ok since they haven’t screwed up yet. Then James Rogers who never plays is also listed along with Harrison. Let’s give Odoms and Horn a shot I guess, at least we don’t have the same guys who have fumbled (Cissoko, Trent, Shaw). Warren is listed as the punt returner with an “or” for Matthews too....Yikes...

The kicking game is still doing pretty well with Lopata at 3-4 on the year still and Zoltan up to 16th in the nation in punting due to some very nice rolls. Even more impressive was Jason Gingell on kickoffs with one touchback in the second half keeping it from dangerous returner David Gilreath and then making him take it from 6 yards back in the endzone. I never thought I would ever be happy to see Gingy after last year, but I actually hope he does kickoffs again.

Illinois kicking game is not as good as Michigan’s with RS-Fr Matt Eller as the kicker who has gone 5-7 on the year, but with one make from 51. He is pretty good, but not near great. Their punting is not good with punter Anthony Santella averaging just 38.6 yards per punt. This should help Michigan’s offense get some good field position. One place I would say Illinois has the advantage is on kickoffs where Illinois has 7 touchbacks between Eller and Mike Cklamovski. Part of that probably is because Illinois has a lot of kickoffs since they score a lot, but Michigan only has the one touchback from Gingy on the year.

In the return game, Illinois is not great, but holds onto the football so they are way above Michigan right now. Freshman A.J. Jenkins is their best kick returner averaging 24.5 yard per return so far. Benn returns punts and kicks too, but has struggle on kickoff returns (16.7 yards) and has not gotten chances punt returning, probably because of Illinois’ bad defense, going for 27 yards on 2 chances with one going for 22 yards. But they hold onto the ball so way better than Michigan. Illinois did give up a kick return for a touchdown to Penn State last weekend, but against Michigan, until they hold onto the ball, that should not be a concern.

Michigan needs to hold onto the ball.

Advantage: Illinois

I really have no idea how this game will play out. Michigan is trying to come off a high, and has struggled against the spread tending to not bring pressure. Illinois’ offense is good, but their defense is bad. They could be pumped to beat Michigan for the first time since 1999 or just indifferent at 2-2. I’ve decided to base my decision on the Zook factor. I figure we can always count on Ron Zook for a few big gifts during the course of the game. He already has helped Michigan, by not changing any of the starters on the struggling defense. I expect a few inexplicable calls and substitutions that give Michigan the nod, in a game I otherwise have no idea how to pick. Player of the game is Ron Zook for the Wolverines.

Michigan 24 Illinois 21

Remember to tune in at 3:30 tomorrow afternoon by going to and clicking on the sportstream to listen live.

Go Ron Zook help the Wolverines!!!

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