Hoke impressed with team's senior leadership
That's a thread the Wolverines are grasping as they move on to face Illinois in the first of a final trio of games in the 2011 season.
With their controversial loss at Iowa the previous week, the Wolverines saw their chances of being anything other than spectators for the Big Ten's inaugural championship game begin to dissolve.
Mathematically, Michigan is still in the picture, but with two losses in conference play and both of those coming to teams above the Wolverines in the Legends Division standings -- Michigan State and Iowa -- the numbers are heavily tilted away from the Wolverines.
Still, that Big Ten title game has been the prize all season long, so the Wolverines are not ready to give up on its pursuit. They will try and sweep the final three games, and hold out for a near miracle to occur elsewhere across the conference, opening the door for Michigan.
"We have three more games and that's all we can worry about," DT Mike Martin said. "There's a lot more football to be played in this league, and we can't tell the future."
Michigan coach Brady Hoke wants to avoid commenting on the "big picture" topics and keep his team locked in on Illinois. He is confident there will be no hangover following the loss at Iowa, now that his team has to turn around and go right back on the road. Hoke credits the senior leadership with keeping everyone on task.
"I think our kids are pretty daggone resilient, and they'll be in good shape," Hoke said. "You've heard me say this a lot, and I wouldn't say it if I didn't believe it. I really like how our seniors have invested in the youth of this football team."
It takes a stretch of the imagination to put the Wolverines in the Big Ten championship game next month. But that will remain the carrot this team is chasing as it makes its final road trip of the season. Home dates with Nebraska and Ohio State will wrap up Michigan's 2011 season.
--RB Fitzgerald Toussaint has been Michigan's rushing leader in four games this season, while QB Denard Robinson has led the team in rushing yardage in the other five games.
--The Wolverines completed the month of October with three victories, which is more than Michigan won in the month in the three previous years (two wins total).
--Michigan's defense has limited its Big Ten opponents to less than 30 percent success rate on third-downs. The opposition has converted just 18 of 61 third down plays against Michigan this season (29.5 percent).
SERIES HISTORY: Michigan leads Illinois 67-23-2 (last meeting, 2010, 65-63 (3 OT) Michigan)
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Wolverines have been churning out the yardage in conference play, totaling 500 yards or more in three of their Big Ten games. The veteran line should control Illinois up front, since the Illini's smaller, quicker approach on the defensive line has had mixed success. QB Denard Robinson needs to pick his spots and make Illinois pay for any breach in coverage, and a workhorse-type afternoon from RB Fitzgerald Toussaint will keep Robinson fresh and allow him to pick his spots to break loose out of the pocket.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Michigan's defense gave up more than 35 points per game in the 2010 season, but has improved dramatically this year, giving up just under 16 ppg. Facing Illinois, the primary assignment will be to quickly close ranks on QB Nathan Scheelhaase. "We can't expect one guy to bring him down, we gotta get hats to the ball," DL Ryan Van Bergen said about the priority of slowing Scheelhaase. The Wolverines have forced 20 turnovers so far this season, and a couple in this game would likely give them the edge.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Coach always tells us, 'Don't let one game beat us twice.' We just need to get back on the road and beat Illinois." -- QB Denard Robinson on bouncing back from the loss at Iowa
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Michigan at Illinois, Nov. 12 -- The Wolverines play their final road game with their backs against the wall. If they want to entertain those fading hopes of playing in the Big Ten's inaugural championship game, this is a must win, and a whole lot of other good things have to happen elsewhere.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Michigan's success has been closely linked to its ability to run the football behind a potent offensive line. The Wolverines have piled up more than 300 rushing yards in four of their last seven games, and a performance in that neighborhood likely places the Wolverines in the driver's seat in this contest.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--QB Denard Robinson -- He is just 120 yards short of another 1,000 yard rushing season. His 97.8 rushing yards per game ranks fifth in the Big Ten.
--LB Kenny Demens -- Leads the Wolverines with 66 tackles, 36 of them solo stops. Demens has made three stops behind the line, and has one sack and a forced fumble.
--TE Kevin Koger -- Has three touchdown catches this season and is becoming an increasingly popular target for QB Denard Robinson. Koger has the size to block like a tackle, and the athleticism to create very difficult matchups for opposing linebackers.
--DB Troy Woolfolk started six of the first seven games this season at cornerback, then made a successful switch to safety. He had four tackles in the win over Purdue, and made six stops in the most recent loss at Iowa.
--RB Fitzgerald Toussaint suffered an undisclosed injury in the Iowa game but is expected to be back in the lineup against Illinois.
--LB Jake Ryan had a stinger in the Iowa game but is expected to be available for the road game at Illinois.
--OL Ricky Barnum, who has played little this season due to persistent ankle problems, is again doubtful for this week's game at Illinois.
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