When I woke up on Saturday morning, I turned on ESPN Classic and saw former Illini RB Rocky Harvey breaking a touchdown run in The Big House against Michigan. The greatest network ever created was showing Illinois' 1999 upset win in Ann Arbor, just hours before the Illini and Wolverines were to kickoff today. Could this be a sign forecasting another Illini shocker?
As ESPN's Lee Corso would say, "Not so fast, my friend!"
Michigan RB Chris Perry scored three first-half touchdowns and the Wolverines never looked back in their 56-14 victory over Illinois on Saturday in Ann Arbor. Michigan (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) went into the locker room at halftime with a 35-0 lead.
Illinois (1-7, 0-4) got two second-half touchdowns from running back Pierre Thomas. Thomas scored from 1 yard out with 7:44 remaining in the third quarter and carried the ball 7 yards for a score with 5:33 left in the game. Thomas ran the ball 10 times for 26 yards and did the majority of work after E.B. Halsey left the game due to a knee injury suffered on a third quarter punt return. While he was active, Halsey gained 12 yards on eight carries.
Redshirt freshman QB Chris Pazan struggled in his first start for the Illini. Pazan completed 11 of 23 passes for 100 yards and one interception. Late in the game, senior Dustin Ward replaced Pazan. Ward was a perfect 5 for 5 passing for a total of 63 yards. It is anybody's guess who Illinois Head Coach Ron Turner will start next week at home against Minnesota. Depending on the severity of the back injury to starting QB Jon Buetjer, Pazan or Ward could lead the Illini against the Golden Gophers.
Quarterback turned wide receiver Mark Kornfeld continues to be one of the few bright spots for Illinois this year. Kornfeld caught five passes for 77 yards. If Turner wants to try and spark his offense, he should consider moving Kornfeld back to QB and have him throw passes to himself. Knowing Kornfeld's work ethic, he would complete most of the passes.
The Wolverines hit the beleaguered Illini defense with a balanced attack. Michigan QB John Navarre completed 18 of 27 pass attempts for 203 yards and one touchdown. Jason Avant was the leading receiver for Michigan, with 4 catches for 71 yards. Perry ran the ball 24 times for 140 yards. The Wolverine running back became the seventh player in school history to surpass the 3,000-yard rushing mark in a career. Perry ended the game with 999 yards on the season.
As to be expected when starting a new quarterback, the Illini offense looked out of sync. Pazan isn't completely to blame, due to poor route running and dropped passes by his receivers. Ultimately, the quarterback is the one to take the majority of the criticism.
"My job is to get the ball into the playmakers' hands, and I didn't do that," Pazan said. "I missed some throws."
This game was a carbon copy of the past three losses in the Big Ten for Illinois. The Illini were manhandled on the offensive and defensive lines and the opposing offense took the game right at Illinois.
"We lost it up front," Turner said. "We didn't stop them right off the bat. They are a very good, physical football team. We couldn't get anything going."
Turner appears to have pinpointed the main Illini problem. His team is just not physical on the offensive and defensive lines and not fast at the skill positions. This trouble needs to be addressed in the off-season, if not sooner. Turner needs to get away from the predictable game plans the Illini have trotted out in the last four games. The coach needs to pull an ace out of his sleeve and trick the Gophers for Homecoming next Saturday. If not, the Illini's last home game against Northwestern could be played in front of 70,000 fans dressed up as empty seats.