Each week we scout Michigan's opponent. We'll start with the basics, and then explore some relevant match-ups. For those that want to know more, we'll sprinkle in a mixture of history, reflection, and philosophy for a comprehensive look.
Michigan (5-3) vs. Illinois (5-3)
(W) UCONN 30-10
(W) at Notre Dame 28-24
(W) UMASS 42-37
(W) Bowling Green 65-21
(W) at Indiana 42-35
(L) Michigan State 37-17
(L) Iowa 38-28
(L) at Penn State 41-31
Illinois Players to Watch:
These are two teams with identical records heading in different directions. The Fighting Illini has scored 87 points in their last two games, but it's their defense and special teams that are serving as catalysts to Illinois's improved play.
The Fighting Illini is getting great results with their new Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning. He just left Kansas State, his alma mater after one year. In his brief stay in 2009, Koenning directed a defense that improved the Kansas State's rush defense 96 spots from 112th to 16th. The turnaround has been as dramatic for Koenning in his first year at Illinois too.
Defensively, Illinois has jumped from 96th nationally a year ago, to 12thin scoring defense, 91st to 15th in total defense, and from 100th to 19th in passing defense under Koenning's leadership. He returns to Ann Arbor for the first time since being an assistant coach at Memphis in 1995. He admits to being so frustrated by the Michigan offense in that game, he put a hole in the wall inside the Visiting Coaches box.
Against Penn State, they held the Nittany Lions to just seven first downs and 235 yards in Happy Valley. They limited Michigan State to four yards rushing in the first half. Two weeks ago against Indiana, the Illini scored two touchdowns on interception returns, forced five turnovers, and recorded a safety after blocking a Hoosier punt. Last Saturday, Illinois held Purdue to 205 yards of total offense; most of it coming after the Illini held a 37-0 lead going into the fourth quarter.
The obvious question I had to ask Head Coach Rich Rodriguez, under the circumstances is how Illinois has been able to turn around a bad defense in less than a year?
"I think they are playing with a lot of confidence now," Rodriguez told me without hesitation. "I think some of the players, I don't want to see they've been in the shadows, but they have been in the program and have grown up and have learned a little bit and are now upper classmen and playing very well. They got some of the best athletes in the league on defense. I think they got a lot of confidence right now with the way they have been playing and believing what they're doing."
As players go, Corey Liuget (Jr. #93) has really emerged as a good pass rusher, not as a defense end but from the tackle position. Liuget dropped 30 pounds in the offseason and has been very disruptive on the pass rush. He is as important and productive for their D-Line as Mike Martin (Jr. #68) is for the Wolverines. The match-up in the middle between he and Michigan center David Molk (Jr. # 50) should be one to watch.
Martez Wilson (Jr. #2) is a former five-star recruit, who missed the rest of 2009 after suffering from a herniated disc in his neck after their opener against Missouri. A starter since he was a freshman, Wilson's absence had to factor in the team's performance. Now that he's back, he's making a difference.
"They are probably as athletic as anybody in our league" said Rodriguez. "They are probably playing their best football. I thought they were one of the most athletic teams we've played the last couple of years as well. It will be quite a challenge."
Illinois is getting stronger on defense seemingly each week. They're as healthy as they ever been now that the starting secondary has returned. Rodriguez is right in that they exude confidence. Of course each week, every opposing coach discusses the challenge of stopping Denard Robinson (So. #16). Illinois Head Coach Ron Zook (2-2 lifetime vs. Michigan) had one of the more interesting analogies.
"I think we have to swarm the football, we have to tackle. We can't jump out of gaps. He is like water; he is going to seek the path of least resistance."
The Illinois offense has taken advantage of the strong defense in the past couple of weeks and they are slowly improving under freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase (#2). He's getting some strong rushing support from a fast but also punishing running back, Mikel Leshoure (Jr. # 5) and from former QB now WR Eddie McGee (Sr. #10).
The offensive statistics aren't scary. The Illini are 7th in the Big Ten in scoring, 10th in total yards, but they are first in red zone offense going 29-30, and the actual scoring has been a collective effort with the defense and special teams. Last season, Illinois was tenth in Red Zone offense during conference games.
Coach Zook also hired a new Offensive Coordinator this year. Paul Petrino is the brother of Arkansas Head Coach Bobby Petrino. He had been coaching with his brother for the past seven seasons before going out on his own to Illinois.
With Juice Williams gone and Illinois turning to a red-shirt freshman with no game experience, quarterback play was expected to be awful, but it has quickly turned into a position of strength. Scheelhaase struggled early, but has grown from a running quarterback who dinks and dunks to an occasional deep passing threat who is making good decisions with the zone read.
Scheelhaase has won the Big 10 Freshman of the Week four times in eight games. This past week he won that and the conference's overall Player of the Week for his four touchdown passes and 118 rushing yards.
"He scares you because when everything breaks down, he can take off and gain 20 -30 yards," said Rodriguez. "You have to make sure you keep him contained. Those mobile qb's as anybody that plays us can tell you, are a nightmare. You can have the best defense called and he can take off on you."
Leshoure may be a bigger concern for Michigan's struggling defense. He's made big plays against Michigan in each of the past two years.
"He's a very fast guy and powerful. You don't realize how big he is. How strong he runs. He runs with a lot of power, in between the tackles. He can get outside a little bit. He's not a guy you can just hit. You got a hit and wrap your arms around him. We missed a few tackles. That was disappointing. We had been better at tackling. We didn't get off blocks well but this guy here; we'd better get more than just one person around him.
If that isn't a major concern, I don't know what is. However, Leshoure can be stopped. With only 23 yards and 15 carries last week against Purdue, it was his worst performance of the year. However, the Boilermakers game plan was stop Leshoure and make Scheelhaase beat them, which is exactly what Scheelhaase did. Leshoure knows that defensive strategy may continue this week.
"Sometimes defenses key on me and open up things for other guys, so however the game plan is let's hope that we can execute our offense and get away with a win."
With news of cornerback J.T. Floyd (So. #12) being lost for the rest of the season, this not only affects Michigan's pass coverage, but many opposing running backs have had success getting to the outside. During runs to the outside, cornerbacks protect the sideline and force flow inside. With linebackers missing their run assignments the burden falls to the corners that usually have a receiver blocking against them. True Freshmen Courtney Avery (#5 167 lbs) and Terrence Talbott (#22 171 lbs) may have their work cut out for them against the bruising and speedy Leshoure.
Illinois will have a distinct advantage on special teams as well. Place-kicker Derek Dimke (Jr. #13) is a Lou Groza semi-finalist hitting 15-17 on the season, hitting two field goals from 50+ yards and is a perfect 12-12 under 40 yards. Dimke is also routinely forcing touchbacks on kickoffs.
Anthony Santella (Sr. 87) is averaging a Big Ten best 46 yards per punt, which is also seventh best in the nation.
Observations from Last Year's Game
It was a 3:30 game year ago on Halloween and it was the Wolverines who got spooked in Champaign-Urbana. Many expected Michigan would get their sixth win against a team that was really struggling on both sides of the ball; however, by the end of the game many started to wonder if Michigan couldn't beat Illinois, who would they beat? Some might be feeling history is now repeating itself.
The Illini never had a problem moving the ball last year, but it couldn't learn how to finish. There was a repeated pattern of a tightly wound team shooting themselves in the foot, and then unraveling. It would appear that Michigan was in control and it looked even more clear that the Illini were about to throw up the white flag. However, with Michigan up 20-7, video replay showed that Roy Roundtree's (So. #12) 77 yard touchdown catch and long run went only 76 yards as Terry Hawthorne (So. #1) caught Roundtree from behind and got a knee down before the ball went past the goal line. Michigan would be stopped on four straight runs and Illinois's offense answered back with a 99 yard touchdown drive for a 14-13 lead. Michigan wouldn't score again, and Illinois racked up over 400 yards of total offense in the 2nd half for their first win against a FBS opponent. It may have saved Zook's job.
ENJOY THE GAME!