No. 3 Michigan 41, Illinois 8
ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Starting your third-string quarterback against the nation's top-ranked defense -- in the famous words of Paul Kowalczyk -- is not ideal. Illinois brought a plastic knife into a battle against a tank -- and got rolled over quickly.
At least, the Illini (2-5, 1-3 Big Ten) showed enough fight to prevent the embarrassment that No. 3 Michigan usually showers on opponents -- and covered the 40-point spread in Vegas.
Still, the Wolverines (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) looked the part of a national title contender, while Illinois looked the part of a rebuilding Big Ten bottom feeder.
Michigan, which scored on its first four possessions to take a commanding 28-0 lead after just 19 minutes, totaled 561 yards. Illinois totaled 172.
Michigan converted 29 first downs. Illinois converted six.
Michigan punted twice. Illinois punted seven times.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff George Jr. (4-for-15 passing, 95 yards, one touchdown, one interception) struggled mightily in his first career start in place of injured season-long starter Wes Lunt (back) and last week's starter Chayce Crouch (shoulder), who were in attendance but not dressed to play.
George Jr. -- the son of Illini great and 1989 No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick Jeff George Sr. -- didn't complete a pass until midway through the third quarter, a 43-yard strike to Malik Turner (two catches, 86 yards). He also committed two turnovers: an interception on a second-quarter screen pass and a fumbled snap in the third quarter following two straight complete passes. His backups were walk-on Cameron Miller and former defensive back and receiver Trenard Davis.
Illinois punted or turned it over on its first nine drives (six punts, one fumble, one interception and one turnover on downs) before Turner's acrobatic 43-yard touchdown grab and run snapped Michigan's 122-minute shut-out streak.
The Illini also used running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn out of the Wildcat. The sophomore broke a 45-yard run but finished the day with seven carries for 43 yards. Kendrick Foster led the Illini with 45 yards on eight carries.
The Illinois defense didn't force a punt until 2:35 remained in the second quarter on Michigan's fifth drive of the game. But defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson's crew was competitive for the rest of the game, holding Michigan to 13 points over the game's final 41 minutes.
What it means
Michigan is a national title contender, and Illinois is nowhere close -- especially given its quarterback situation. But you already knew that. This is turning into a lost season for the Illini, a disappointment for a team that expected to compete for a bowl bid. But there were some small signs of progress, especially with some of the young players on defense. Plus, the Illini have several games against flawed opponents ahead on the schedule.
The truth is that recruiting is more important than the rest of this season, though wins certainly would help that effort. Michigan is loaded with talent. CBS Sports ranks 13 Wolverines among their top-250 prospects for this year's NFL Draft. Illinois has just two: Dawuane Smoot (29) and Hardy Nickerson (180). The Illini may never get to Michigan's level but to compete with its Big Ten West foes, Smith's staff must improve the talent. That will take time, though.
What went right
The Illini defense played well for the final two and a half quarters, especially against the run. The Illini held Michigan to 4.6 yards per rush, below Michigan's 5.7 average entering the game. That's a positive sign heading into games against power-run opponents like Minnesota, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern.
Some young defenders showed some flashes through inconsistencies. Julian Jones (11 tackles) looked like he belonged, and Stanley Green (11 tackles) made some big hits out of the free safety spot, including a hit that forced a fumble in the third quarrter. Tre Watson (seven tackles, 1.5 TFLs, one QBH) also blew up a few plays.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh tried to enhance Jabrill Peppers' Heisman candidacy. The junior defender received a season-high five carries, but the Illini limited him to just nine yards.
Malik Turner is a star wideout. He's a big, athletic target with elite go-up-and-get-it skills. He just has no complement, and George missed him on a few throws.. Hopefully, Mike Dudek and 2017 recruits help in that area next year.
What went wrong
George Jr. was thrown to the wolves. Even considering those terrible circumstances, George Jr. proved why he was the third stringer -- and he would have been the fourth stringer if not for Jimmy Fitzgerald's preseason transfer. George Jr. under-threw receivers open down the field and over-threw the screen pass that was intercepted.
The Illini secondary continues to get torn apart in pass coverage. The Illini are giving big cushions but still getting beat downfield. The Illini must upgrade their personnel at cornerback in recruiting.
Opponents continue to take advantage of the Illini defensive line's over-aggression in shooting their gaps. Draws and zone reads continue to gash the Illini.
Watson's targeting penalty marred an otherwise nice day for the sophomore. He must sit out the first half of next week's game against Minnesota.
Illinois returns home to host Minnesota for homecoming. The Gophers (5-2, 2-2) beat Rutgers on Saturday -- barely. The Gophers needed a field goal with six seconds remaining to knock off Rutgers 34-32 at home. Head coach Tracy Claeys, who took over as interim head coach last year after Jerry Kill resigned due to health issues, can clinch bowl eligibility with a win in Champaign -- and maybe help his case for an extension of his current three-year deal? Illinois is looking for a program-building win that can help the team gain some momentum into November. The Illini will be underdogs, but it will be a winnable game -- especially if Wes Lunt returns, which is a possibility.