Illinois coach Ron Zook was totally drained after losing a heartbreaker to Michigan Saturday. There were too many big plays to remember; it was all a blur to everyone who watched. Zook praised UM.
"There were so many things that happened in the game. Like I told them, they (UM) deserved to win. At the end they did the things they had to do and we didn't get them stopped."
Among Illini records broken, today's game was the longest in Illinois history, as no other game has lasted more than one overtime. The 132 combined points are a Big Ten record for most combined points in a conference game (the previous high was 115 in 1993). The 65 points is the ninth-most Illinois has ever scored in a game and most since 1944.
Illinois' 65 points today are the most ever scored by an opponent in Michigan Stadium. The previous high was 51 points by Florida State in 1991, and 50 was the previous high by a Big Ten Team.
The Illini defense, known for its vast improvement this season, found itself impotent at the hands of an explosive Michigan offense. Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning, who undoubtedly lost sleep preparing for the Wolverines, will no doubt have nightmares for some time to come after his total annihilation Saturday.
Michigan gained a phenomenal 676 net yards of offense, 419 via the pass. The Illini held quarterback sensation Denard Robinson far below his rushing average, limiting him to 62 yards before leaving the game with injury. But fear of his runs left wide open seams in a porous secondary, and Robinson and replacement Tate Forcier took advantage.
The Illini defense, ranked #15 nationally prior to the game, gave up more than twice its average, ruining otherwise gaudy statistics. And it began on the first play as Robinson found the Illini expecting run. Roy Roundtree, who broke a Michigan career single game record with 246 yards in 9 receptions, ran a wide open post route for a 75 yard touchdown.
Much of the Illini's defensive success this year has been their ability to pressure the opposing quarterback when back to pass. Fearing Robinson scrambles, the Illini rarely blitzed. This allowed him plenty of time in the pocket to complete his throws. And their decision to stop the run left receivers open in the secondary according to Zook.
"You put nine guys in the box to try to stop the run, and he was a good enough thrower that he was able to hurt you. You kind of have to pick your poison."
The Illinois strategy was to control time of possession to keep the UM offense off the field. They had nine more minutes of possession, but the defense simply couldn't get stops when needed. The Illini wanted to make Michigan grind it out, but instead they gave up one big play after another.
"That's exactly right. We couldn't get off the field when we had to. But still it's a good offense, and they've done a great job."
The Illini offense had its best day of the season, gaining 561 net yards, 315 by run and 246 by pass. Mikel Leshoure scored five touchdowns on the day including two long pass receptions. He gained 120 yards rushing on 24 carries. Jason Ford broke contain and rambled down the sideline for a 64 yard touchdown. He had 91 yards on the day. And quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase gained 101 yards in 21 carries and scored a TD.
Scheelhaase completed 14 of 25 passes for 211 yards and three scores. Backup Eddie McGee was two for two for 35 more. Jarred Fayson caught 5 passes for 79 yards, A.J. Jenkins added 49 yards in three grabs, and Leshoure's two TD's totaled 52 yards. Freshman Ryan Lankford added a 33 yard touchdown catch and a two point conversion.
It is impossible to pinpoint a play or series of plays that determined the outcome because there were so many. Trying to describe all the big plays, and all the big mistakes by both sides, would be an exercise in futility. Each team took turns with the lead, with no one able to enjoy more than a 7 point advantage throughout.
Many coaching decisions will be reviewed, with one late in regulation debated in particular. Illinois got the ball on its own 11 yard line holding a 45-38 lead with a little over 9 minutes remaining. Illini faithful were hoping for a repeat of the keep-away that allowed the Illini to upset Ohio State in Columbus in 2007.
After picking up two first downs, the Illini faced 4th and one at their own 42 yard line. Zook debated whether to go for it, knowing a mistake would give the potent UM offense great field position.
After a timeout, it was decided to punt. Anthony Santella booted the ball into the end zone, giving the Wolverines 5:54 to tie the game. Backup quarterback Tate Forcier needed 4:07 to do just that, hitting Daryl Stonum for a 9 yard score to send the game into overtime.
Zook explained his decision afterward.
"Our defense was struggling a little bit, and I didn't want to put the defense in a bind if we didn't make it. We didn't want to chance it. We didn't want to be foolish.
"Hindsight is 20:20. If I had to do it again maybe I would go for it after what happened. I thought we could make it, but I just felt we had to get a great punt off and make them start at the 20. I felt since Robinson was out of there, we could at least slow them down."
But the Illini defense was both exhausted and confused, as it was most of the game. The Illini forced three overtimes and scored a touchdown in the third after UM had scored a TD and two point conversion. But Michigan called a blitz on the two point conversion, and Scheelhaase was unable to get a quality pass off.
"It was a heck of a call, great call, and we just didn't get it picked up," Zook admitted. "Hats off to them."
Michigan is now bowl eligible. The Illini still have three games to earn a post season opportunity as well. This was a tough loss, but there is still plenty to look forward to according to Zook.
"I'm still proud of our football team. Particularly the offensive side of the football grew up. I think we know now what kind of offense we have. And we know the defense has done it. We've just got to go back to work and get it fixed."