Improving Michigan Tough Opponent

Out of the frying pan, into the fire. Fresh off a frustrating trip to the Nittany Lions' lair, the Fighting Illini football team now must travel to the Big House to face Michigan's Wolverines. The Big Ten hoped Michigan would be down this year adjusting to a new coach, but their big comeback last week against Wisconsin proved otherwise.

Michigan is never an easy opponent for Illinois. This will be their 90th meeting, with the Wolverines holding a dominant 66-21-2 record and 31-10-1 in Ann Arbor. They have defeated the Illini six straight times. Illinois has not won at Michigan since 1999, a span of nine years.

Even when Illinois was favored in the past, Michigan would still usually win. The Wolverines may not be Illinois' most hated opponent, but they have certainly been the most frustrating to play. As good as they've been over the years, they have also frequently had luck on their side as well. Illinois will be bucking long odds in this one.

Rich Rodriguez brought his wide open spread offense to Ann Arbor this year, and he has had growing pains as his team makes an adjustment from the pro style attack taught by former coach Lloyd Carr. Quarterback quickness is the key to Rodriguez's plans, but he found the cupboard filled with drop back passers. It has taken him time to find the right combinations.

But if the Wisconsin win is any indication, those adjustments are now being made. Quarterback Steven Threet (6'-6", 230) is known as a drop back passer, but he is starting to show some mobility. He had some big option runs last week, proof that opponents must take his running seriously. Threet has gained 123 yards in 24 carries, a respectable 5.1 yard average on the young season.

Threet's starting receivers are Greg Mathews (6'-3", 206), Darryl Stonum (6'-2", 184), and freshman Martavious Odoms (5'-9", 168). Matthews has 11 catches for 148 yards, while Odoms has 16 for 124 yards. Junior Hemingway (6'-1", 214), Toney Clemons (6'-3", 200) and LaTerryal Savoy (6'-3", 206) are backup receivers. Mike Massey (6'-5", 228) and Carson Butler (6'-5", 250) are experienced tight ends.

True freshman running back Sam McGuffie is the third leading receiver with 10 catches for 98 yards. The high school All-American also is the leading rusher with 65 carries for 249 yards and 2 touchdowns. Michigan boasts a number of serviceable backups, including Michael Shaw (6'-0", 177), Brandon Minor (6'-1", 208), Kevin Grady (5'-9", 228) and Carlos Brown (6'-0", 207).

Michigan's offensive line has been rebuilt around former Illinois prospects who would love to defeat their state school. Tim McAvoy (6'-6", 284), David Molk (6'-2", 284), and David Moosman (6'-5", 286) all start, and Perry Dorrestein has started but now plays behind Mark Ortmann (6'-7", 287). Tackle Stephen Schilling (6'-5", 295) is the only returning starter, so it has taken them awhile to gel. But they have given up only three sacks so far.

The Wolverine strength is their defense. They are second in the Big Ten and 16th in the NCAA in rush defense, giving up a meager 88.5 yards per game for a 2.3 yard per carry average. They are 5th in the Big Ten and 34th nationally in total defense at 309.2 yards per game. They already have 13 sacks on the young season. And Zoltan Mesko's net punting ranks 6th nationally with a 41.3 yard average.

Middle linebacker Obi Ezeh (6-2, 247), defensive ends Brandon Graham (6-2, 270) and Tim Jamison (6-3, 263), defensive tackles Will Johnson (6-5, 285) and Terrance Taylor (6-0, 319), and cornerbacks Morgan Trent (6-1, 188) and Donovan Warren (6-0, 180) are all returning starters. Ezeh is the tackle leader with 34 including 1.5 tackles for loss.

Ends Jamison and Graham are outstanding. Jamison is a speed rusher from Illinois, and Graham leads the team with 9.5 tackles for loss and returned an interception for a touchdown last week against Wisconsin. Taylor is a run-stuffing tackle who has starred for two years.

Will Johnson (6'-5", 282) is the other starting tackle. He is backed up by Renaldo Sagesse, a Canadian and former Illini recruiting target. Linebackers John Thompson (6'-1", 235) and Jonas Mouton (6'-2", 214) flank the dynamic Ezeh. Starting safeties are Brandon Harrison (5'-9", 208) and Stevie Brown (6'-0, 209). Harrison has 28 tackles on the year, and Brown has tied Trent with 25.

K. C. Lopata is an experienced and talented place kicker.

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